Chapter 63

As waiting went, three days was almost impossibly short. Devlin and I had spent entire weeks idling in various European countries while a potential contact took steps to secure the area and not every one of those occasions had ended with an actual meeting. That the Texan was able to clear his schedule on such short notice was a point in his favor; added to the other positive marks I’d given him for professionalism and personality, I found myself thinking that a purely social visit with the man wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant.

That said, deducting three days from my thirty day time limit was a tough pill to swallow. There would likely be other delays and pauses while we tried to work out the identities of the remaining members of the Community, to say nothing of how long a concerted campaign against the Mouse might take. When my ransomware expired and my full network – with all of its banking information, aliases, and my real name – lay bare to the Mouse’s machinations, it wouldn’t matter how close we’d come to taking him down. That, as the saying went, would simply be that.

There was nothing to do for it, though. If the Texan wanted to meet in three days, I’d simply have to find something productive to do with the free time. Normally, I spent down time working on programs for an upcoming job, pursuing leads, or idly monitoring the information returned by my automated web crawlers. I couldn’t use those, for obvious reasons, and there wasn’t exactly a target for me to set my sights on. Devlin was out, doing whatever it was he did with the local underworld. Michel was similarly disposed. Mila was…somewhere in the house, probably. Or maybe she’d gone out in search of new sweets. I didn’t really want to hunt her down and, I suspected, she didn’t really want to be found by me.

With nothing concrete to occupy my attention, and absolutely no desire to be alone with my thoughts for any length of time, I turned to my new workstation. I’d gone through the trouble of assembling it and used it for brute number processing, but had otherwise kept it removed from my larger network. There were a few useful, readily available programs that I’d installed, more out of habit than necessity, but nothing that the Mouse could have compromised.

At least, I hoped that he couldn’t. If his skills transcended talented and verged into the realm of supernatural, though, there wasn’t really anything I could do.

I minimized the email program, instead of closing it outright, and double-clicked on a colorful desktop icon labeled Worlds of Wonder. I hadn’t played the game in at least a year and I hadn’t even bothered opening it in about six months. Still, when I loaded up the default configuration of programs, settings, and measures of protection, Worlds of Wonder always seemed to make it to my desktop.

Thankfully, the account that paid for my monthly account was separate from the rest of my extra-illegal accounts. The subscription fee was small enough that I essentially forgot about it from month to month. Without my direct intervention, the account had been drafted at regular intervals and my subscription remained active. I just needed to wait for a few minutes while patches updated before I could log in to the game proper.

There was a new chat function available at the splash page, which reminded me just a little bit of the Community’s room. Of course, there were numerous differences – security, first and foremost, but also the Community’s focus on private chat rooms – but the similarity was enough to send a chill down my spine.

That chill was magnified when a low pitched tone announced a new private message from someone else logged into the game. My heart rate tripled for a few moments before I realized that I hadn’t adjusted my settings to private and that the message had come from a member of my own guild. I could’ve sworn they would have kicked me after my prolonged absence but, at the same time, it was possible that they just hadn’t gotten around to it.

WinterEyes: Waiting for the latest patch?

I weighed the merits of ignoring the question. Ultimately, I decided against being rude for rudeness’ sake.

Lisander: What else? Can’t do anything until this download finishes.

WinterEyes: You didn’t preload the files?

Lisander: Haven’t really had a chance to play the game lately.

WinterEyes: Oh? What’ve you been up to?

Winter’s questions were probably innocent, but my nerves had been frayed to the point of disintegration by revelations in the recent past. There was little possibility that someone could have hunted down my screen name and even less that any interested party would go through the trouble of creating an account of their own for the sole purpose of stalking me into Worlds of Wonder. But, if there was one person who could find me, she would absolutely be willing to go through all of that work simply for effect.

Lisander: I’m surprised that you’re so bad at this.

WinterEyes: What? What are you talking about?

Lisander: You know exactly what I’m talking about.

The chat went quiet for a handful of seconds. When Winter wrote again, I could practically feel the difference in tone, even without the benefit of vocal cues or nonverbal tells.

WinterEyes: What gave me away?

Lisander: Just a little too heavy-handed with the questions. Next time, try to ease into it?

WinterEyes: I’ll keep that in mind. I must admit, I don’t have much experience with this…particular medium.

Lisander: What brings you here this time, then?

WinterEyes: I could hardly communicate with you via our customary channels, now could I?

I blinked, then reminded myself who I was talking to. If the Lady had any defining characteristics, aside from her preternatural timing and impossibly deep closet, it was her ability to know things that she simply should not know.

Lisander: If you already know that, then that makes this a lot easier. Did you know about the Mouse?

WinterEyes: Your friend? No, I didn’t. I was only vaguely aware of Caelum’s previous activities and most of that information was acquired in the recent past.

Lisander: When you realized that we were likely to end up going against him?

WinterEyes: Precisely.

Lisander: Do you know anything that might be helpful, at all?

The Lady didn’t respond for a long time. In the background, the patch finished downloading and a bright green button labeled “Play Game” lit up in the center of the screen. I moved it out of the way to focus instead on the conversation. Any desire to waste time gaming had evaporated with the Lady’s first message.

WinterEyes: Nothing salient comes to mind, I’m sorry to say.

Lisander: Nothing? Seriously?

WinterEyes: The Mouse – or should I say Caelum? – has done an exemplary job keeping his activities secret.

It was disheartening to hear that from her own lips, so to speak, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising. The primary benefit to being a hacker, instead of a thief like Devlin, was the inherent difficulty in tracking our movements. With proper planning, I could easily make it seem like there were three or four of me, operating on as many different continents. If I could do that, the Mouse would certainly be able to perform feats much more technically complicated.

At the same time, I did have more to go on than the average person. I’d worked with the Mouse on different projects over the years, probably more closely than anyone else in the Community. With their assistance, I’d be much better equipped to deal with his attacks; with the Lady’s help, though, there was a slim chance that I’d be able to find some sort of pattern. Both were valid avenues to pursue and I saw no reason to limit myself to only one angle of attack.

Lisander: If I told you about the attacks I knew, for sure, he’d been a part of, what could you do with that?

WinterEyes: There are any number of digital intrusions that could be attributed to him, but just as many that might simply be the work of talented copycats. Eliminating false positives could go a long way towards isolating more actionable intelligence.

Lisander: How can I get that information to you? I can’t use your email addresses.

WinterEyes: I know your official addresses; if you could send a list of what you know to one of the addresses I’ve used previously, I’ll know to treat it as an official communique.

While I was relieved to discover that we weren’t completely cut off from our employer, I couldn’t help but experience a sharp spike of irritation. I’d thought that the throwaway addresses I’d used to communicate with the Lady might serve as a connection to her real name. Through them, I’d hoped to follow a trail leading to her front doorstep. If she was comfortable with me using potentially compromised accounts to reach out, then she presumably wasn’t concerned with anyone using those throwaways against her.

Two steps forward. One step back. Or two steps back. I wasn’t really sure.

A thought occurred to me while I mused over which email address to contact her on. I allowed the idea to percolate in my head, turned it around to examine it from different angles, and decided to ask her a personal question. Or, more accurately, as close to a personal question as I thought she might actually answer.

Lisander:How long have you had this account?

WinterEyes: A year, perhaps longer. Is that relevant for some reason?

It wasn’t particularly relevant, except that her answer couldn’t possibly have been true. I’d chosen my screen name based on a hacker character from a Swedish crime novel. Like most of my online sobriquets, it had been a careful choice that meant something to me, but likely wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. The Lady had done similar things throughout our time in her employ and this screen name wasn’t any different.

WinterEyes wasn’t indicative of anything, on its face, but I’d read The Three Musketeers more than once in my life. The female antagonist – if antagonist was the right word, considering the time frame of the novel and the general attitude towards women with agendas of their own – had been Milady de Winter, a spy in the employ of the evil Cardinal. Even if I discounted the connection between this screen name and the fact that the Mouseketeer was our latest adversary, I couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d chosen a name which included the nickname that Devlin had only given her six months ago.

She was lying. I’d caught her in a lie. Granted, it wasn’t a very large lie, and I had no idea why she’d pick this particular non-issue to obfuscate about, but it was still something noteworthy. I made a mental note about the discrepancy and started considering ways that I might be able to use it in the future.

I would have asked her more questions, in an attempt to suss out other areas where the Lady graduated from misleading answers to outright falsehoods, but a knock came from my door at that instant.

Sarah?” Devlin asked, from the hallway outside of my room.

One second,” I said.

Lisander: No reason. I’ll get that information to you; you’ll let us know when you find something out?

WinterEyes: If I find something, then yes, of course. I assume you will be dealing with your former friend at some point in the near future?

From the moment I’d realized the Mouse’s double identity as the digital bogeyman Caelum, I’d known that I’d have to deal with him at some point. What I remembered from his previous rampage told me that he was too talented to simply sideline or waylay. Anything short of removing the Mouse from play entirely would only leave me unguarded against a blindside at a later date. As long as I was working for the Lady, I would have to keep an eye out for attacks and traps.

It just sounded so final coming from her. As far as I knew, the Lady hadn’t directly killed anyone before…but, at the same time, I’d spoken to her in person and I didn’t doubt for a second that she was capable of it, should the situation require it. Even Fatima had been willing to take a life – by her own hands, in fact – when pressed into a corner.

I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach for that, though.

Lisander: One way or another, yes.

WinterEyes: Best of luck, then. I will be in touch.

She logged out of the game. A moment later, the character WinterEyes left my guild. I didn’t bother double-checking to see if the character still existed.

Come in,” I called out as I closed the game and started typing out a list of incidents.

Devlin slipped into the room and closed the door, but he lingered at the entrance long enough that I looked up from my work and raised an eyebrow in his direction.

How did it go?” Devlin asked.

How did what go?”

You and Mila,” he said. “I figured the two of you needed to clear the air about…whatever it is that’s been going on.”

My eyebrow climbed a little steeper. “What do you mean by that?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know exactly what it is. But I can tell that you’re both on edge about something. I was hoping that you’d be able to sort it out if you could have a conversation without worrying about witnesses or anything like that.”

A sharp retort rose to my lips from out of nowhere and I just barely managed to bite it back. I took a deep breath instead and stepped down on the urge to say anything untoward. “Anyway. Did you actually get any work done or were you busy micromanaging my relationships?”

Ooops. I stepped down a little harder on my emotions.

Devlin didn’t react to the tone, even though he’d certainly noticed it. “I didn’t learn anything we couldn’t have figured out on our own. Some of the local heavies were contacted by an anonymous benefactor attempting to purchase their services for a ‘pickup.’ The ones I talked to passed on the business opportunity out of self-preservation, which forced the Mouse to go with less scrupulous hires.”

Self-preservation?”

As it turns out, there’s a rumor going through the underworld. Not just the one in Atlanta, in fact, but several in Europe and at least two in Asia. People are getting real skittish about working with people they don’t know personally.” Devlin smiled. “It seems that someone is going around disrupting businesses and exposing nefarious criminals and ne’er-do-wells to public scrutiny. It’s had a chilling effect on short-term hires, as you can imagine.”

Well, at least it isn’t all bad news.”

Is there bad news I didn’t know about?”

I told him about my brief exchange with the Texan and my somewhat longer talk with the Lady, including the part where she’d lied about her screen name for no discernible reason. He listened patiently, only interjecting once to ask for a point of clarification about how secure my newest workstation was.

By the time I’d finished, Devlin had moved away from the door to lean against a dresser closer to the bed. He uncrossed his arms and ran both hands through his hair as he digested this latest information. “So,” he said finally, “does this mean we’re on our own?”

As much as we ever are,” I answered. “If the Texan has information we can use to find the rest of the Community, though, then we’ll at least have allies to look forward to hunting down. Temporary allies, at the very best, but it’s better than nothing.”

I guess.”

His marked lack of enthusiasm mirrored my own. I didn’t feel the need to vocalize those thoughts, though, since he so obviously understood them. There was a comfortable familiarity to that, I realized.

Devlin’s phone beeped twice at the same instant that mine vibrated on the desk. I finished the email to the Lady while he checked the incoming message.

What is it?” I asked.

Your grandmother,” Devlin said. “She’s got a flight heading to Dallas in about four hours.”

Already? That was fast.”

Sometimes, I think you forget what your own last name is. She’s a Ford. If she wanted to get a private jet, she could probably have gotten us out of Atlanta even faster than this.”

I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about my lineage; I’d just grown used to using our finances to purchase low-key flights that wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. He was right, though. Virginia could have commandeered a plane to take her wherever she wanted at a moment’s notice and few people would have blinked at the expense.

Will you be ready to go, or should I ask her to look for something later?” Devlin asked.

I looked around at the bedroom. It wasn’t the same room I’d spent so much of my childhood in, but it was damn close. There were no posters on the wall and few clothes in the opened closet. Several pieces of electronic equipment were scattered around the space – some on the bed, a few peripherals on the floor – while my workstation hummed quietly. When that was dissembled into its constituent pieces and packed up, the bedroom would resemble a storage space more than an area where someone had lived, even if only for just a few days.

I wasn’t sure how I should feel about that, but I certainly didn’t feel good.

I’ll be ready to go,” I said. In a way, I supposed that I already was.

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Chapter 62

To her credit, it only took fifteen minutes to persuade Virginia to book a flight, even without offering her any of the juicy details she wanted.  Between Michel, Devlin, and myself, we managed to convince her that there would be time to discuss matters later, but that action was required now.  Besides, the sooner we were on the flight to Texas, the sooner we’d be able to deal with the threat represented by the Mouse and his handlers.  It was just more pragmatic for her to find a plane than to continue asking us questions we resolutely sidestepped.

She excused herself after we convinced her – or, more likely, after she decided that she had a greater chance of weaseling out answers if she attacked us one on one later – in order to make the necessary phone calls.  The Ford Company didn’t have any local affiliates in the greater Texas area, but we could always create some reason to visit.  No one was going to look too carefully into the flight patterns of an octogenarian, even one who was traveling with her wayward granddaughter and a cadre of strange men.

Michel and Devlin made their own exits shortly after Virginia.  Michel professed a desire to rest his eyes and Devlin claimed that there were dangling questions in the local underworld hiding spots, some of which might provide us with additional information, but I wasn’t sure that I believed their reasons.  Michel typically fell asleep later in the evening, usually in the AM, for only a few hours; Devlin’s story held up better, but I knew him well enough to generally tell when he was only telling part of the truth.

No, they hadn’t left me to sew up matters in Atlanta before our departure.  They’d wanted to leave me alone with Mila.

She seemed to grasp their intentions, if the subtly pronounced line of her jaw was any indication, but she said nothing for a long time.  I resolved to hold my own tongue, as well, and I managed to stick fast to that resolution for a whole thirty seconds before the tension in the room drove me to speak.

“So, are you going to say it?” I asked.

Mila searched her immediate surroundings for a few moments.  She located the object of her search – a piece of hard candy – before answering.  “Say what?”

“You know what.  You were right, I was wrong.  I shouldn’t have gone to meet the Mouse in person.”

“Why would I say that?”

“Because you told me not to and I didn’t listen.  Your whole job is protecting us and you can’t do that if I’m just going to do my own thing everytime the mood strikes me.”

Because you wouldn’t have let yourself get trapped like that, I thought. But I kept that to myself.

“No,” Mila said, “that’s not what I mean.  I mean, literally, why would I say that?  What would the point be?  You made a mistake.  It happens.  Don’t make it again, if you can help it.”

I stared at her.  The words made sense…almost too much sense.  I’d known that Mila was detached, but her sanguine attitude didn’t fit neatly into the framework I’d mentally constructed for this conversation.  She was supposed to act superior, pricking neatly at my ego without ever seeming to do so on purpose, until we reached some form of mutual agreement.  A casual acceptance of my fault, without any accompanying malice or even emotion, was too placid for me to react to.

At least, it should have been too placid for a reaction.  I was still holding onto a lot of internal tension, though, and the conversation I’d anticipated would have been a useful way to blow off some steam.  As it was, Mila didn’t appear to be willing to give me anything to push back against.  Some embarrassingly large part of my mind decided that peaceful acceptance wasn’t going to be enough.

“You make it sound so easy,” I said.  My voice was just a hair snider than before.  I heard it, hated myself for it, but couldn’t stop the miniscule audio sneer.  “What would you have done in that situation?”

Mila took another bite of her candy, chewed thoughtfully, and then shrugged.  “I don’t have a lot of friends,” she said.  “So I don’t really know what I would have done.  Maybe gotten a better idea of the layout before walking into a trap?”

“You didn’t wait before you saved Devlin’s life,” I pointed out.  “And that was in the middle of a fire, when you didn’t even have an escape plan.”

“That wasn’t because of friendship,” Mila said.  “That was a job.  I was hired to protect him, so I did.”

“So we aren’t your friends, then?”

That got her attention.  Mila put down the remaining half of her candy and raised her eyes to meet mine.  She wasn’t pained by my jab – of course not, Mila couldn’t be harmed in that way – but there was a shadow of some familiar old hurt in the corner of one eye.  It reminded me of the expression on Fatima’s face, when she’d taken her place atop the Rubbish Throne.  There was a distance there, something vast enough to separate two interior worlds from one another, and the reflection of that gap was in her eyes. 

Mila cleared her throat.  “I didn’t say that.  I just meant that I didn’t do the warehouse, specifically, because of our shared past or whatever.”

I could’ve let her drop there.  I should have let it end at the very beginning, before the conversation made it much farther past the point of impugning our relationship.  This was the sort of argument that opened rifts and chasms in a team. 

My mouth kept moving, though.  Pent-up anger and humiliation, forced through the pressure point of my mouth, took on a frankly acidic tone.  “So you’re saying you would have let him die?”

“The Mouse?  I mean now, yeah.”

“He wasn’t always working for them,” I said.  I had no idea if that was actually true, but it sounded right.  “He could have needed our help.”

“And so you went to give it to him,” Mila said.  She stood up from her seat.  “Without training or protection.”

“I can protect myself.”

“Obviously.”  She spoke the word with a shocking amount of sarcasm.  I hadn’t known her to be capable of mustering that level of passion, excepting the palpable fear she’d radiated while in Aiden’s presence.

“Listen, you –“

“No, you listen,” Mila said, cutting me off without bothering to raise her voice.  “You and Devlin and Michel are all determined to run this team like Robin Hood and his merry men, which is fine.  Really, it’s fine.  But you can’t expect me to understand or agree with every side trip you let yourself get distracted by.”

She had a point.  Mila never made a secret of her emotional detachment.  We’d known about it from the very beginning.  Just because she’d deigned to join our team, long-term, didn’t mean that she’d consented to change the way her mind worked.  Or, for that matter, that she had even the slightest desire to do so.

She was still speaking.  “What I can do, though, is make sure that you all get out of this alive.  That’s my job, that’s why you guys keep me around, and that’s what I’m going to do.  Understand?”

I couldn’t find a flaw in her argument, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  “What’re you going to do, then?  Attach yourself to me at the hip, just in case I end up in trouble again?”

Mila shrugged.  “If that’s what it takes.  But I’m thinking it might be easier to teach you some things you actually can use, for when you eventually end up in a bad situation.”

In my emotional state, it took me a moment to grasp her meaning.  Mila had, of course, tried to teach all of us basic self-defense in the wake of the London affair.  Devlin had the physical dexterity for the lessons, but he lacked the instinct.  Given an opportunity to flee, he was more likely to evade or run away from a problem than confront it head-on.  Michel…I wasn’t sure what the progress of Michel’s training was, since he and Mila traditionally conducted their practices in the wee hours of the morning.  Presumably, he was doing well; I never heard her chastise him in public over some private mistake, at least.

I, on the other hand, had conclusively demonstrated a stunning lack of aptitude for physical violence.  I didn’t have Devlin’s grace or Michel’s stubborn desire to learn anything combat related.  In fact, I’d only been in a few direct confrontations since committing fully to the Lady’s cause and I’d only engaged in those because I literally hadn’t seen any other options.

Mila claimed an inability to read people, but she must have seen something in my expression.  “Trust me, I know.  But I’ll have to think of something or you’re going to get yourself killed trying to do everything by yourself.”  She found another two or three pieces of candy, pocketed them, and stood up from the table.

“Where are you going?” I asked, feeling stupider with every syllable.  There were few things more frustrating than picking a fight with someone who refused to fight back, but I’d gone too far to pull back now.  Better to look like a stubborn idiot than an idiot without conviction.

“We’ve got another trip coming up, don’t we?”

I nodded.

“What are you going to offer him?”

There hadn’t been much chance to think about that.  “I don’t know yet.”

 

“There’s really only one thing we’ve got that we can use,” Mila said.  “Anyway, I’ve done some work around Texas, so I can reach out to my contacts in the area.  It won’t stop your friend from hiring the local lowlifes, but I can at least make sure he doesn’t have access to any skilled labor.”

“No one knows we’re going there,” I said.  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that there was at least one person I should probably reach out to before stepping onto the flight.

“No one knows yet,” Mila corrected.  “Call me crazy, but I’m not going to let my guard down until we’ve got this Mouse handcuffed to a chair in front of us.  Maybe not even then.  Unless you think he isn’t that dangerous?”

I opened my mouth to say something clever, realized that there simply wasn’t anything available to fit that description, and sighed instead.  “No,” I said. “No, you’re right.  Better to be safe than sorry.”

“That’s what I figured.”

Mila strode toward the kitchen’s exit.  I raised my voice just before she stepped out of sight, desperate to get the last word in.  “Just make sure you’re ready to leave!”

She gave me the ‘okay’ signal without turning around to respond.

I sat alone in the kitchen for a full minute, stewing silently over the…had it been an argument?  A discussion?  Whatever term applied to the conversation between Mila and me, I felt profoundly unsatisfied by its conclusion.  She hadn’t attacked me, like I’d expected, and she hadn’t demonstrated any perceived superiority either.  She’d pointed out my mistake – which, coupled with my own frequent self-recriminations, raised the number of critiques to somewhere in the triple digits – but she hadn’t seemed particularly interested in rehashing the matter.

With an effort, I put the talk out of my mind and focused on larger issues.  We needed information and the Texan was possibly the best and only option available for us.  We’d have to give him something in return but, with his assistance, there was a slight chance at gaining the intelligence necessary to turn the tables on the Mouse.

Finding the Texan, though, was going to be the most difficult part of the next step.  In his position, I wouldn’t set down roots in any specific location.

I left the kitchen and headed up to my room.  The new system that I’d pieced together sat, still untested, in one corner.  That was a small blessing, at least.  Any tools I’d connected to the internet, at any point, could have been compromised by the Mouse.  This new system, subpar though it was, had only been used to calculate raw numbers.  Without a prior connection to exploit, there wasn’t any way for the Mouse to seize control.  And, since I hadn’t compiled the two images necessary for the malware’s payload to deliver, he couldn’t use this system to attack me without already knowingexactly who and what to target.

At that point, subtlety wouldn’t really matter anymore.

Using a long Ethernet cable, I physically connected the workstation to the second floor router and logged on.  I avoided going to any of the websites or forums that IreneAdler would use, just in case the Mouse was watching IP addresses, and opened up my corporate email address instead.  There were only a few messages stored there; I’d never really worked at the family business and the few emails in the inbox were mass-messages, sent out to everyone within a given mailing list.  I ignored those and hit reply on the email I’d received a few days ago from the Texan.  I toyed with a few different opening lines – was “to the Texan” appropriate, or should I go with something more pithy? – before deciding to jump straight in.

 

We made one deal: my name for your information.  Why don’t we make another?  I’ve got something you’re really going to want and I think we might be able to come to an arrangement.

 

I looked over the message, then hit send.  I only had enough time to delete a few outdated emails before the reply came.  He used the same address as before, which struck me as odd for several seconds before I realized that an information dealer nobody could reach wouldn’t be of much use to anyone who needed to employ his services.

 

Miss Ford:

What exactly are you offering and what are you asking for?  Can’t go around making deals without knowing what you’re selling, after all.

 

Of all the information I’d learned since returning to the job, there were several secrets that people would literally die for.  The Magi were both capable of and amenable to open, unabashed murder, if that was necessary to keep their shadowy existence under wraps.  The Lady was…potentially less willing to kill us out of hand, but then she didn’t really have to get actively involved in the first place.  If revealing her agenda would endanger her ultimate goal, I didn’t doubt that she’d out us herself and let the chips fall where they may.

There was one thing, though, that was absolutely certain to grab his attention.  Mila had been right, yet again.  I clicked reply and typed out a brief message.

 

Wouldn’t you like to know who’s been disrupting the Underworld lately?  Meet me, in person, and we can make a deal.

 

I sent the message and waited for the response.  When none arrived after thirty seconds, I started to worry.  What if the Texan already knew about our secret agenda?  Or, it occurred to me, what if he was a target of said agenda?  The Magi could be anyone, anywhere.  I wouldn’t put anything past the members of a shadowy cabal, even pretending to be an affable, somewhat low-level trade of secrets.  It would be a good way to keep a figurative finger to the pulse of the various criminal communities.

When I still didn’t have a reply after five minutes, I actually began sweating.  That could have been due to the rising temperature of the Georgia morning or could it have been because of my anxieties ratcheting up.  I’d expected a response, even a negative one, but silence was impossible to read. The Texan could be weighing his options, deciding what outing the scion of the Ford family would be worth.  If the Mouse didn’t get his hands on my Irene identity, my true occupation would be devastating to a great many legitimate business interests.  I could only imagine the damage it would cause the family business, to say nothing of my actual family members.

In the end, it took thirty minutes before another email appeared in my inbox.  The email arrived without fanfare or warning.  I’d begun pacing back and forth across my room, visiting and revisiting every decision I’d made since leaving Tangiers when the computer beeped to inform me of an incoming message.  I didn’t need to open the file; the preview that popped up at the bottom right of the screen was large enough to display the email’s contents. 

 

Come to Atwater Alley, no later than 9 in three days.  I’ve got business to finish up where I’m at.  Looking forward to seeing you again.

 

Somehow, the response didn’t settle my nerves any.

Chapter 62

The following morning, Virginia, CJ, Michel, Devlin and I all sat down at the oversized kitchen island to discuss the situation…or, to at least discuss the parts of the situation that I was willing to disclose to my grandmother. Mila stood a little bit away from us, applying a bandage to a wound on her upper arm. She’d refused proper medical attention, choosing instead to deal with the injury with what I imagined to be hard-won skill on her own terms.

My own injuries were so minor that they barely merited a mention. My brief scuffle with two of the Mouse’s goons had awarded me bruises in a few choice places and an unreasonably soreness in my legs, but it didn’t even compare to the long knife wound beneath Mila’s self-applied bandage. From what I gathered, she’d tanked an attack – probably a few different attacks – while making her way into the museum to save me. Getting her to share even that slim bit of information had been like pulling teeth; she steadfastly refused to divulge anything else, even when she’d deigned to allow Michel a few moments to fuss over her.

She wasn’t looking at me and I was happy to return the favor. To her credit, Mila hadn’t yet played the ‘I told you so’ card. Sure, I could feel the sentiment radiating off of her in palpable waves, like heat from a blacktop, but she was keeping her mouth shut about it. I wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. On the one hand, it allowed us to work together without the possibility of hurt, bitter feelings handicapping our teamwork. On the other, the complete lack of reaction on her part left me feeling a little off-kilter. I’d made a mistake, endangering myself and the rest of the team, by trusting my instincts to the point of excluding everyone else from all relevant details; as a result, I deserved to be roundly mocked and ridiculed about it until such time as someone else screwed up.

It was just the right thing to do. There wouldn’t be any real malice in the mockery, of course, but the simple act of treating every mistake as a joke, instead of something more dire, made it easier to move past it. If Mila insisted on responding to my colossal error in judgment with the same stoicism she’d wear to face a horde of armed lowlifes, the whole affair would take on an uncomfortable weight around my shoulders.

For the moment, though, I put her out of my thoughts as best as I could. We could deal with our interpersonal drama later. At the moment, there were much larger problems afoot.

Tell me what’s going on,” Virginia said. She was holding CJ’s hand just under the island, where she presumably thought I wouldn’t be able to see it.

That’s…complicated,” I replied. “Very complicated. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

You could start at the beginning. That’s always worked for me.”

Even if I’d wanted to do that – and I most assuredly did not – I wasn’t even sure where the beginning was. Did I go back to my first hack? Or to my introduction to the Mouse and, ultimately, the Community? Did she want to know about the moment when I’d stolen my first sum of money from a corrupt charity, or would that first job with Devlin suffice?

It occurred to me, in a distant and unconnected sort of way, that the subject of my divorce didn’t seem to be a pressing concern. Virginia was still operating under the story we’d concocted – namely, that Michel was my husband, while Devlin was merely a coworker and colleague – and I saw no reason to do away with a cover that was still working. Besides, that revelation would inevitably lead to more questions and we had a limited amount of time to cobble together some sort of plan.

This art thing,” I said slowly, picking my words with excruciating care. Seated next to me, Devlin sat up a little straighter and started to open his lips before I waved him down. “It can edge into the field of the…slightly less than legal. I mean, only in the most technical possible way, but still.”

Virginia accepted that comment without a change in her expression or so much as a subtle shake of her head. “How much less than legal are we talking about?”

I sighed. “Enough that I’ve made enemies of my own. And these aren’t the type s of enemies you call the cops about.”

Like your friend?”

I wasn’t entirely successful in keeping the snarl from my face; it still managed to come out in a raised lip and a slight growl, originating from the very back of my throat. “Yes,” I said. “Exactly like that.”

It wasn’t a lie, after all, so much as a creative way of answering the question. I wasn’t quite ready to deal with the weight of the Mouse’s real identity just yet, and enduring a barrage of questions from my grandmother was an immediate non-starter.

These are the same kinds of enemies that mean we can’t call the cops, aren’t they?” Virginia asked.

I nodded. Devlin and Michel did the same, nonverbally backing up my story in near unison. Mila finished with her bandage, downed a fistful of antibiotics, and turned her attention to a small gash just above her left ankle. She gave no comment, nor showed any interest in the conversation at all. I knew her just well enough to realize that her disinterest was a posture, taken for effect…I just wasn’t sure how much was an act.

Yes, they are,” I said. “But that’s fine. We don’t want to bring down anything else on your head, so we’ll be leaving in the next day or two.”

Virginia’s eyebrow went up. She was silent for a few seconds before she turned to look out of the window. “Do you have a plan?”

A plan?” I blinked. “For what?”

For your enemies,” Virginia clarified. “You came to me last night, saying that you needed help. But now you’re telling me that everything’s fine, only you’re about to skip town as soon as you can get the funds together. Is that what you needed me to help with?”

She was right, but the way she’d worded it made my skin crawl. “It isn’t about that,” I said quickly. “We just don’t want to involve you in…my whole thing, you know?”

You keep saying ‘we,’ but I haven’t heard much from your husband.” Virginia turned her attention to Michel, who seemed to shrink away from her eyes. “What do you think about all this?”

About all of what?”

Virginia waved a hand vaguely back and forth through the air in front of her face. “This. Whatever it is that my granddaughter is involved in, whoever it is that she’s so afraid of. Do you think she should just deal with this on her own?”

Michel’s head twitched minutely in my direction, but he stopped himself from completely turning to look at my expression for an answer. It was just as well; I didn’t have any idea how he could answer the question without arousing suspicion.

She will not be on her own,” Michel said slowly. “I will be there to help her. So will Devlin and Mila.”

For all the good the three of you down have so far,” Virginia snapped. The edge in her voice was sharp enough to split the very air in the room. “I don’t even know how bad this all is, because Sarah won’t tell me and because she won’t let the rest of you tell me. But even I can tell that this is beyond what you four can take care of on your own.”

Virginia, I…” Michel trailed off, gathered his thoughts, and started over again. “Virginia, that is not fair. Sarah is much more capable than you think she is.”

I winced as Virginia leaned forward. “More capable at what, exactly?”

Michel shut up. I wasn’t sure if that was really the best move, but it at least guaranteed that he wouldn’t inadvertently give my grandmother additional loose threads to pull on.

The conversation might have gone even further off of the rails, if CJ hadn’t interjected. “Miss, uh…Virginia,” he said. “Maybe you shouldn’t get so upset, all things considered?”

I’ll get angry if I want to get angry,” Virginia replied. She’d removed most of the scorn from her voice, but even the ambient amount leftover was enough to cause CJ to recoil as if she’d slapped him. She noticed his reaction and instantly altered her tone. “I’m sorry, CJ. That wasn’t kind. I’m just…”

I understand,” CJ said. “We can take a walk, if you want. That always helps you calm down.”

Virginia narrowed her eyes, searching for the trap in his innocent suggestion for a long time, before she finally nodded. “I assume you won’t be running away the second I’m out of the room, Sarah?”

I’ll be here,” I said.

Mmmhmm.” Virginia got up and left the table, CJ in tow, without offering any other parting words or disbelieving sounds.

When she was safely out of earshot, Michel turned to me and spoke in a quick, hushed whisper. “I am so sorry, Sarah. I just said the first thing that came to mind. I did not mean to make things any worse.”

I accepted his apology with a slight nod, coupled with a dismissive wave. “This is entirely fouled up, but you don’t deserve any of the blame for that. I’m the one that got us here.”

We decided to help out,” Devlin said. “Blaming yourself, or anyone, doesn’t make things better.”

He hadn’t spoken much in the last twelve hours or so. I would have been concerned about his feelings on my error, except that I knew his moods well enough to tell when he was angry versus when he was simply excising emotion from his mental calculations. The Devlin I knew – warm, funny, capable of breathtaking acts of insight moments after staggering displays of poor planning – hadn’t returned until the middle of the conversation with Virginia, and he’d stayed quiet to give me room to work.

It was exactly what I’d needed to function after the reveal of the Mouse’s true identity, and he’d provided that space without a second thought.

What do you think we should do?” I asked him.

Devlin pursed his lips. “There are a lot of things in the air,” he said after a few moments of thought. “And this is your life, not mine.”

What are our options, then? Lay those out and we can figure out which one is the best route to take.”

Devlin pinched the bridge of nose for a five count, then shook his head. “Whenever I’ve got a problem,” he said, “I always ask myself a few questions. What do we have, what do we need, and how can we get it? If you can answer those, you’ll have a pretty good idea where to start.”

I tried to shift my own thought processes to work along those lines and wasn’t entirely successful. Devlin focused primarily on the short term, living and breathing on that adrenaline drenched edge of insanity. I needed time, to craft a perfect plan that would account for the acquisition of some long-term goal. He was no more capable of cobbling together an elaborate play-by-play operation than I was able to break into safes or convincingly fake an entire lifestyle.

Only Devlin had forced himself to evolve. In London, he’d been the mastermind behind the multi-layered strategy to allow Asher the opportunity to tie his own noose. That plan had depended on an insane amount of luck and coincidence, coupled with the fact that Devlin had actually planned to go back to jail, but he’d still been successful. If he could deal with that many unknown variables and force them all together into the semblance of a flowchart, surely I could think like him for a few minutes.

What do we have?” I repeated. “Our resources are, for all intents and purposes, frozen. So we don’t have them.”

What about the Lady?” Michel asked.

Even if I tried to reach out to her, I’m not sure she’d respond to any messages right now.”

Devlin got Michel’s attention in order to explain. “Our Lady’s got an interesting habit of showing up at exactly the right time, always with more information than she should reasonably have. It’s safer to assume that she knows we’re blown, instead of banking our hopes on her.”

Even if she doesn’t know,” I added, “we should probably keep her as a last resort. Contacting her could be exactly what the Mouse wants.”

Michel’s eyes unfocused for an instant while he attempted to trace through my logic. He blinked and looked at me when he reached the appropriate conclusion. “Through your system,” he said, “the Mouse might be able to get information on the Lady’s whereabouts?”

It’s possible. Unlikely, if you ask me – please don’t think I haven’t been trying in my downtime to dig up anything about her – but the Mouse’s code was always better than mine. Now that we know he’s Caelum, there’s no telling what sort of techniques he’s been keeping close to his vest.”

We digested that possibility in silence for a few seconds. In only a few months, the Lady had taken on an almost mythic position in my mind. I knew, academically, that she was no more skilled or talented than any individual might be with her resources. That academic knowledge didn’t detract from the dramatic effect that her unannounced appearances and disappearances had, which was probably the exact reason she engaged in them. Even contemplating the reality of her vulnerability unsettled me to a surprising degree.

I couldn’t know for sure how the rest of my team felt about it, but I could attempt to read their expressions. The prognosis wasn’t positive.

Okay,” Devlin said finally. “So we don’t have our normal resources. What do we have?”

Certainty,” Mila said. We all turned to look at her before she continued. “We know for sure that the Magi and the Lady exist. Also, we’re the only people who’re absolutely certain about what we’re after. The Mouse is just guessing.”

What does that give us?” Devlin asked.

We’re unpredictable. As far as he knows – at least until Sarah’s timer runs out – we could decide to change our names and vanish in the next couple of days. If we go on the attack, we’ll have the element of surprise.”

If we go on the attack?”

When,” Mila said. She showed the barest sliver of white teeth in a fierce, tight smile.

That brings us to the second point,” I said, drawing everyone’s eyes back to me. “I’d ask what we need, but that’s obvious: we need to find the Mouse before he finds us.”

And to do that,” Michel said, “we will need the remaining members of your Community?”

It’s not my Community, but yes. The ransomware I used protects me, but it also basically cripples me. Besides, we all had our specializations. Trying to deal with the Mouse individually didn’t work before; maybe attacking him as a team might work better.”

Will they even be willing to team up?” Devlin asked.

Why wouldn’t they? They’ve got to know that they can’t deal with him on their own.”

As far as they know,” Devlin said, “you might be working with him. If I’m understanding this correctly, he used your computer to go after them.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it slowly. Devlin had a point. A good point, in fact. The problem of the Mouse’s duplicity was both stark and easy to grasp: if an old friend could turn out to be an enemy, then anyone could be harboring secret and nefarious motivations. I was the newest member of the Community’s upper echelon. If anyone would be suspected of seditious aspirations, it’d be me. Gates had already made her suspicions perfectly clear and it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that the other two hackers could be brought around to that line of thinking.

Mila cleared her throat. “Doesn’t matter. You aren’t working with them. You’ll just have to prove that when you find them.”

Devlin nodded. “So that’s two out of three things sorted. Last question: how do we get it?”

I didn’t have an answer for that. Each member of the Community zealously protected information that might lead to their real identities. Even with my full capabilities, I doubted that I would have been able to crack their protections without at least a year of dedicated focus. In a month, distracted by whatever new obstacles the Mouse could think to throw in my way, while basically kneecapped? That challenge rated as the next best thing to impossible.

Then it struck me. I needed information. And I could only think of one avenue that might provide me with that.

My grandmother picked that moment to re-enter the room, alone. CJ must have peeled off at some point. Virginia strode across the room and returned to her place at the kitchen island.

I’m calm,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I think I’m wrong. You can’t tell me that you’re in trouble and then tell me that you’re going to deal with all of this on your own. No offense, but you obviously can’t handle it, or else you’d -”

Virginia.” I held up a hand and she stopped, mid-sentence. She seemed shocked that I’d interrupted her; I knew that I was surprised I’d done it, at least. “Okay. You’re right. That isn’t fair to you.”

She blinked and visibly switched mental tracks. “So. Alright, then. How can I help?”

I looked at the rest of my team. Mila appeared disinterested, while Michel was obviously anxious and jittery. I made eye contact with Devlin specifically, willing him to understand the direction of my thoughts. After a split second of intense focus, a little smile appeared at the corners of his lips and I knew he’d reached the same conclusion.

We needed information and all we had to offer was information in exchange. There was only one person we knew who might be willing to take that trade.

We need a flight,” I said, “to Texas. As soon as you can make that happen.”

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

So long as people created information, and then tried to keep that information secret, there had always been hackers. Men and women, hellbent on flounting the rules for a chance to get a glimpse of knowledge they were not meant to know. It was only human nature, after all: the desire to seek the unknown, to push the boundaries of acceptability and, in doing so, to forge new paths into the future.

It just so happened that, of all the modern hackers in the Community, the Mouse was by far the most talented and the most adventurous.

That level of talent was kept strictly secret, of course. Just because the Mouse knew more than the other members of the Community didn’t rule out the possibility of new tricks to absorb, to assimilate, and to re-purpose. Feigning a level of a skill level far lower than what was true, the Mouse had easily finessed an invitation into the secretive enclave. While there, it had been difficult to fake a struggle when dealing with problems that had long since been solved. But it had been worth it, in the long run. Except for a brief period where an alter ego had been necessary – to push the Community to greater heights or, failing that, to wipe them out entirely for their weakness – events had proceeded more or less according to plan. Years spent coaxing Gate, Frizzle, Max, and the rest of the upper echelon into breakthroughs had yielded dividends, time and time again.

The pursuit of ever greater knowledge had been on track to continue indefinitely. Or at least until the Mouse grew bored of the game. Whichever came first.

But then Irene had appeared, like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky and that plan had burned down to cinders.

It wasn’t that she possessed more raw talent than the other members. She was good, of course, because no one who wasn’t exemplary in their field would eve appear on the Community’s radar. But she wasn’t revelatory. Her work was consistent and reliable, but never revolutionary. The Mouse could have written circles around her code, almost at will.

Her electric vitality, though…oh, that was something worth examining in greater detail. Ever since her first appearance, Irene had worked herself harder than any other member of the Community, pushed herself to increasing heights with reckless abandon. If given a puzzle that should take days or weeks to crack, it hadn’t been uncommon for her to return a solution within forty-eight hours. Still beneath what the Mouse could accomplish, but nonetheless impressive.

She was interesting, in a word; a puzzle that the Mouse couldn’t crack, no matter how much effort was expended in pursuit of that goal.

So, the Mouse had engineered a series of situations to work with Irene, through a variety of sock puppets and astroturfing, and she’d taken the bait. From there, they’d grown as close as purely digital friends could possibly go. But, for the Mouse, it wasn’t enough. There was still more to know, to discover, and to reveal. The Mouse had questions and Irene had answers.

She’d always refused to meet in person, however. Wise, perhaps, but her circumspection stood in the way of the Mouse’s goals and it had been irritating. There hadn’t been anything to do about it and it seemed that their relationship wouldn’t progress to the point where Irene would offer up that final tidbit of knowledge that would solve the puzzle of her drive. The Mouse had, over the years, grown to almost accept the needling pressure of an unclosed book pressing against other, more important, problems. It was something that could be borne, if there were no other options, after all; the Mouse had never really wasted too much time fretting over dead ends.

But then they’d reached out. They’d laid out instructions to follow and offered two things: enticements in one hand and the very real threat of eradication in the other. Find Irene and the people she worked with or be revealed to the world at large, to deal with a busy career’s worth of enemies.

The Mouse hadn’t required either threat or treat, although that wasn’t information they needed to know. The challenge of finding Irene was reward, all on its own. Besides, the knowledge that she was working with people in the real world? Well, that explained any number of unrealistic hacks she’d pulled off over the years. Already, there were answers to the questions that stuck needles into the Mouse’s brain. It would be a pleasure to match wits and skills with Irene and, when she proved inferior, to look in the face of the woman who cast such a long shadow over thoughts and plans.

In fairness, they weren’t really offering a choice. The Mouse knew very well the sorts of punishments disloyal employees received; the types of punishments that any sane person would strive to avoid, at any and all costs. The owners of the anonymous email account weren’t exactly his employers, but the difference was slight enough that there wasn’t much to gain by splitting hairs.

So the game had begun. It hadn’t taken very long to pick up Irene’s trail, if the Mouse was willing to accept that there was no particular rhyme or reason to her travels. From a sloppy hack in London that practically reeked of Helen’s work, to a series of increasingly high profile intrusions culminating in the subjugation of a British Baron’s private network; from that Baron’s estate to a Chinese casino; and from there to Tangiers, where she’d finally set down roots long enough for the Mouse to make his play.

It was difficult to guide someone into making a mistake over the internet; it was even harder when the target was well-versed in many of the techniques one might use to pull that sort of thing off. But ever since their first encounter, the Mouse had known one thing for certain about Irene: she had a heart too big for her chosen profession. A simple entreaty for help, a dash of mystery, and a puzzle for her to follow like a trail of breadcrumbs had been all she required. From there, she’d spun her own spiderweb, providing the Mouse with the information to fine-tune the approach as necessary. When she’d followed the trail to Atlanta, it should have been the end of the chase. Short-lived, ultimately unsatisfactory, but complete.

But she’d gotten away. The Mouse could only extrapolate from the camera footage, but it seemed as though someone else had arrived and helped to her slip out from the noose closing around her neck. She’d escaped too soon for so much as a single image to appear on the camera, too. It had been a frustrating waste of time, the Mouse conceded. Overestimation was the sort of mistake that other people made; other people had certainly made it about the Mouse in the past and great efforts had been undertaken to rectify those situations. Yet that common sense had evaporated as the possibility of meeting her in person overruled wiser thoughts and better planning.

What was worse: they would want an explanation. An explanation that the Mouse didn’t have.

Except for the even blue light streaming from a half dozen monitors, the Mouse’s hotel room was dark and nondescript. Better accomodations could easily have been rented, leased, or purchased, but a dingy room in a small town at the very outskirts of Atlanta had been perfectly acceptable. In a way, the surroundings were almost preferable. No one would expect a world-class like the Mouse – or Caelum, if that nickname was more appropriate now – could or would setup his equipment in such a dump.

Hiding in plain sight and playing his enemies’ perceptions against themselves was so consistently reliable that the Mouse had to bury a smile, even as fingers flew across the keyboard as if animated by their own power. Code appeared on the screen and the Mouse was barely aware of the commands and syntax. An idea popped into existence, as they always did, and then that idea was translated into text, commands, and programming syntax without bothering to fully announce itself. It could be checked over later; getting it down, before it slipped away, was the truly important thing to keep in mind. Besides, it served as a healthy distraction before the inevitable conversation and whatever punishments might appear when that conversation ended.

As if summoned by the very thought, a window lit up at the bottom of the Mouse’s screen. The messaging app was, infuriatingly un-encrypted. It was almost as if they wanted to flaunt their power. Even though unsecured apps were among the easiest systems to hack, no amount of effort on the Mouse’s part had ever yielded the vaguest inkling of their identities. Yet.

The Mouse saved the nascent program, even though whatever spark of inspiration had caused its partway birth was surely gone by now, and navigated over to the messaging app instead. They wouldn’t appreciate it if they were kept waiting.

Mouse: I can explain.

BMC: We’re listening.

The Mouse couldn’t actually explain, but that was information better kept as close to the metaphorical vest as possible.

Mouse: She wasn’t alone.

BMC: You were warned of that.

Mouse: I thought you meant other hackers. Like me, like her. People who could help her do…whatever it is that she’s doing.

There was a long pause before the reply came. The Mouse hoped that they would make a mistake, perhaps even allow a little bit of information to slip out, but it was a long shot. It would have been too easy that way.

BMC: In a way, they are. Your failure will do more than allow her to continue her efforts; now warned, she will be capable of avoiding any further efforts on your part. If you are of no more use to us, we do not see any reason for our relationship to continue.

Mouse: I didn’t fail completely.

BMC: …go on.

As first efforts went, the Mouse had planned poorly and paid the price for slapdash , halfhearted preparations. That didn’t mean the entire operation had been a waste, though. The subtle subjugation of Irene’s computer had been going on for some time. The dual photographs and QR code that she’d finally noticed had only been the final stages. With the groundwork already laid and the information already collected, it would be easy work for the Mouse to unravel the tangled web of bank accounts and false identities.

Or it would have been easy, had Irene not opted for a defense of absolute last resort. The ransomware program she’d written – with the Mouse’s help, of course – was both simple and devastatingly effective. In essence, she’d locked away every bit and byte of data on her entire network in a way that defied even the Mouse’s considerable skills. She wouldn’t be able to access that information either, which was some small measure of comfort, but it was still an unavoidable obstacle in the way of progress.

Mouse: She won’t be able to do anything at all, for at least a month. I managed to cripple her network before she got away.

BMC: But, in a month, she’ll be free to start again?

Mouse: In a month, I’ll be able to find out who she is, guaranteed.

BMC: You promised us that you would be able to rid us of this problem some time ago, and yet you have failed at every turn.

Mouse: Not failed. Worked gradually toward success. Surely, you don’t want me to make any mistakes?

Another long stretch of silence met that last sentence. That was fine. The Mouse used the time to pull up the countdown from Irene’s computer network. One month before the code expired and her files were decrypted. When that happened, it wouldn’t just be possible to root out the information necessary to identify Irene in the real world; the Community’s digital presence on her system had left them all vulnerable. Granted, it would take more effort to find them, but only marginally more. Collecting Max, Gate, and Frizzle for them wouldn’t be as interesting as Irene; the Mouse would be able to pay undivided attention to them and, in doing so, wash away their defenses like an unchecked tidal wave.

Mouse: I’m just doing what you asked. If you want me to do something different, let me know.

BMC: You have been failing and failure is not an option we can tolerate any longer. If you wish to do something different, try success for a change.

The Mouse took a deep breath, then another. Control was essential: control of the situation, control of the way this conversation went. A misstep could prove fatal. In the efforts of avoiding lethal consequences, a little wounded pride was no large price to pay.

Mouse:One month, and I’ll have all of the information you need.

BMC: One month. And you’re sure of this?
Mouse: If you didn’t believe in my abilities, you would’ve ‘picked’ someone else. Unless you have someone else already in mind?

The irony there was palpable. There was no one as skilled as the Mouse. Even if there had been, months spent pursuing leads and outing hackers as the mood struck had depopulated the pool of available talent.

BMC: One month. We’ll be in touch.

They left the room a split second later. That had probably been another power play, designed to rob the Mouse of the last word. Blatant and baldfaced as the trick was, it still had its desired effect.

One month. In one month, the lock would expire, but the Mouse didn’t plan to wait for that month to pass. With every connection and contact that a lifetime of work in the deepest, darkest parts of the web, it might still be possible to find Irene another way. If that could be accomplished, other possibilities presented itself. Maybe she would remain as inscrutable in person as she was online. Or maybe she would prove herself to be inferior to the image built up in the Mouse’s mind. Or maybe the truth would lie somewhere closer to the center: not a saint or an ideal, but also not a brutal disappointment.

Only time would tell.

They had handed down orders and the Mouse wasn’t in the habit of denying objective fact. Their leverage was almost monolithic in its scope, expertly chosen and crafted by people who made their lives as puppeteers, and there was no real way out of underneath it. Not alone, at least. With Irene, though…

The Mouse smiled into the darkness of the hotel room. In the distance, the sun began to peek over the edge of the horizon. It wouldn’t be long before the Georgia sunrise bathed the room in a golden light, like flames consuming a piece of paper. When it sank in somewhere between sixteen and eighteen hours, that would mark the end of the first day.

Twenty-nine more days after that before the answer would be practically hand-delivered. That would be a disappointing conclusion to an obsession lasting for years. It wasn’t enough. The Mouse wouldn’t allow it to be enough.

They held the leash as tight as possible, and their punishments were harsh. The Mouse would happily eradicate every other member of the Community, expose them to the light of public notoriety, if it meant drawing even an hour nearer to Irene. Some things were simply worth whatever sacrifice it took to get there.

In the Mouse’s case, that sacrifice would take the form of relative innocents. Community members weren’t innocent innocent, but they didn’t hurt people if they could help it They targeted individuals with enough money to safely siphon away. But, individual merits aside, they would have to serve as the red meat the Mouse fed to them. It would buy more time to accomplish the true goal.

It wasn’t that the Mouse didn’t have any information on them or on their mysterious goals; it was that he didn’t have that information yet.

Another problem, the Mouse decided, that could be dealt with in the coming confrontation.

Peek a boo,” the Mouse whispered in a deep, raspy voice. It was the sound of someone who who went days or weeks without speaking out loud to another human being. Still, it felt good to hear a voice break into the heavy silence of the previous few days. Or weeks. Or had it been months?

Peek a boo,” the Mouse repeated, staring at the computer with the dwindling countdown. “I’m coming to find you.”

Chapter 61

Strained as far as it could possibly have been strained, my mind simply decided not to the function properly anymore. I opened my mouth to ask Mila what she was doing at the museum, but no sound made it past my lips. I tried to coordinate my arms and legs, so that I could stand up, but my limbs followed their own individual directions and I ended up sprawled out on the floor. For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if I was imagining a rescue, in place of dealing with the possibility of capture.

Then, Mila knelt down and hauled on my arm with way too much force. I stumbled to my feet, as much out of a conscious desire to stand as out of self preservation for my shoulder. I tripped forward a few more steps until she caught me with an extended arm.

Are you okay?” There wasn’t much concern in her voice, but even a little bit was enough to shock me out of my stupor.

I’m fine,” I said. I extricated myself from her arm and steadied myself before continuing. “Some bruises, maybe, but those aren’t important.”

What the hell were you thinking, attacking him like that?” Mila asked. “You realize he could have killed you, don’t you?”

I shook my head. “He wasn’t going to kill me. He had orders to follow.”

Of course, I’d only suspected the existence of those orders before I attacked. Mila didn’t necessarily need to know that.

Besides,” I said, “what else was I supposed to do? One or two more steps and he’d have seen me. Him and the owner of that camera.” I pointed at the fallen device.

You could have waited,” Mila said.

For? The earbuds are jammed, so no one even knows I’m in trouble. No one except for you, which…actually, why are you here?”

Mila shrugged one shoulder. The motion revealed a handgun in an under-the-shoulder holster, with the button already undone. “I followed you. Obviously.”

I stared at her. She met my stare with an expressionless gaze of her own. I blinked first. “You what?”

You weren’t going to listen to reason,” Mila said, “and I wasn’t going to let you come here by yourself. So I waited until you left the house and followed you. Turns out that was a good idea, all things considered.” She bobbed her head in the general direction of the incapacitated men.

As much as I wanted to be upset at her presumption, Mila had been right. The Mouse had allowed me to set up this meeting, so that he’d have forewarning and the ability to catch me flatfooted. He’d come damn close, too. My attack had bought me a few seconds, sure, but it wouldn’t have been enough. If Mila hadn’t taken the initiative to countermand my instructions, there was every possibility that the Mouse would already have my identity and, shortly after that, the information he needed in order to bring down the rest of the Community.

As the thought of my hacker compatriots crossed my mind, I remembered that they were also in dire trouble. They just didn’t know it yet.

Ignoring Mila’s strangled sounds of protest, I leaped across the room, practically skidded across a foot of floor on my knees, and reached my laptop. I allowed myself a second or two to think about what to say. All three of the remaining Community members were on edge, and they were dealing with the stress in different ways. Max was attempting to lead the chats and, because that wasn’t working as well as it normally would, she was leaning more towards a ‘no-nonsense’ authoritarian approach. Gate was diving deeper into her paranoia. And Frizzle had assumed a mostly passive position, allowing the other two hackers to lead conversations and only contributing when absolutely necessary.

What could I say in the few seconds left before the Mouse completely locked out my computer access?

Irene: We’ve been compromised. Mouse is Caelum. We need to work together.

Max: What are you talking about?

Gate: That’s not funny, Irene.

Frizzle: I agree with Gate; why would you even say something like that?

I tried to type a response into the chat room, but my words didn’t appear on screen. The Mouse had noticed what I’d done and, via his remote access to my operating system, shut me out of my any further messages. I could only hope that the three sentences I’d managed to slip past his guard would be enough.

Is this really the time?” Mila asked, from behind me.

Absolutely,” I replied. “I’ll explain later. Keep an eye out for a second.”

She grunted and I thought I could hear displeasure in her tone. But she didn’t say anything else to distract me.

The rest of the Community would catch on to what the Mouse was doing, but they didn’t have the relevant information to do that before it was too late. I couldn’t send a message to them anymore. Even if my keyboard hadn’t been remotely disabled, I couldn’t exactly trust anything on my laptop anymore. The entire unit would need to be disassembled down to constituent pieces, magnetically wiped, and disposed of. Even then, I couldn’t be sure that the Mouse hadn’t already gained access to my most sensitive files.

I shook my head, cutting off that train of thought. If he had those files, there would be no reason for this whole charade. It had only been a day or two since my system had really started acting up. That must not have been enough time for him to fully subjugate all of my protections.

Time…it always came back to time. Not enough time to think through the consequences of my actions in Tangiers; not enough time to properly plan the intrusion into the Sovereign; not enough time for me to recognize the strings the Mouse used to puppet me into his little trap. I needed time to do my work properly, so he’d attacked that resource first.

He wasn’t the only one who could play games with time, though.

Remotely disabling my keyboard was an easy trick for someone with root access. All that needed to happen was a simple command to disable the relevant USB ports. Since the Num Lock button at the top right of my keyboard was still lit up, I could safely assume that the Mouse had gone with some other more complicated method of restriction: something that would allow me to type, but that wouldn’t display those words on the screen.

Months ago, before falling back into a life of crime with Devlin and my new teammates, I’d spent a few afternoons pondering what to do in exactly such a situation. The reason for that particular thought experiment slipped my mind, but the solution remained. After I’d come up with it, I had installed it onto every system I used, more as a matter of habit than out of any real forethought.

I used it now. Stretching my fingers across the keyboard, I pressed down four keys at the same time: B, S, O, and D. I kept those keys depressed for ten seconds, released them, and then typed ‘189’ onto the number pad. Nothing happened at first. The computer hesitated just long enough for me to doubt my skills with hardware before my failsafe program went into effect.

The image on screen froze, flickered, and then bled away. The colors literally ran down the screen, like waterpaints on a rainy day, until the only thing remaining was a blue screen, two sentences, and a countdown.

Nice try.

See you next time.

T-Minus 730 Hours.

The language left something to be desired, but the effect was exactly as I’d hoped.

What’re you doing?” Mila asked, impatiently.

Protecting us,” I said, “the only way I can. You came in through the back?”

And through about a half dozen of these chumps.” Mila didn’t bother to hide the scorn in her voice. “There were more clustering around the way you came in.”

How many?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Didn’t think to count. I was in a little bit of a hurry.”

Oh, I was going to hear about this. As long as I got away from the museum without my face appearing on a camera feed, though, I was willing to deal with all the sarcasm Mila could muster.

It’s fine,” I said. “As long as we have a way out of here. You called Devlin before you came in?”

I didn’t have an earbud, so yeah. As soon as I saw people coming in after you, I let him know what was going on. The two of them should either be on the way or already waiting.”

I nodded decisively, hoping that the action might ignite some of that same feeling in my stomach. None came. I closed the laptop and tucked it under my arm. The one month long countdown I’d programmed was now of paramount importance. I couldn’t very well lose track of the days. I started to walk towards the back entrance, then paused.

What?” Mila asked.

They’re using Bluetooth headphones,” I said. “That means they’ve got phones on them.’”

Probably. Why, does it matter?”

I didn’t know exactly why it mattered, but I was absolutely certain that it would. The Mouse had played on our long-term friendship – had that ever been real? – and he’d manipulated me, Sarah Ford, into a position that the hacker IreneAdler would never have allowed. If he was attacking me a personal level, maybe there was something about the man behind the Mouse that I could use, in retaliation.

Grab the phones,” I said. “Destroy the cameras, just in case. I’d help, but…”

Mila didn’t wait for me to finish. She drew her handgun from the shoulder holster, aimed, and fired twice at each camera. She must have been using low velocity rounds, because the sound was loud, but not deafening in the relatively confined space.

There was probably an easier way to do that,” I said.

Mila raised an eyebrow at me as she returned her weapon to the holster. “You want to stand around discussing my tactics?”

Nope,” I said. I gathered up the remainder of my gear and stuffed everything into my bag. “Lead the way.”

Mila nodded. With one hand under her jacket, presumably on the grip of her weapon, she guided me through the dark hallways at the back of the museum. If I strained my ears, I could hear the sounds of men blundering in through the front entrance. We picked up speed and kept going until we reached the back door. Mila ushered me through with a terse gesture and, waiting impatiently at a service entrance, we found Michel and Devlin.

Michel,” I said, “get us somewhere safe.”

Safe?”

I don’t know. You’ve been around this city more than me. Safe, your definition; I don’t really care where we end up as long as it isn’t here.”

Did someone track your messages?” Devlin asked, as soon as Michel got the car moving away from the museum. “Is that even possible?”

I would’ve appreciated a few minutes to myself, so that I could really unpack the revelations of the last half hour. Devlin didn’t know how emotionally exhausted I was, though, so it was perfectly reasonable for him to start pumping me for information at his earliest convenience. It was the smart thing to do, under the circumstances.

Yes, it’s possible,” I said. “It’s not easy, but it’s possible. But that isn’t what happened.”

What do you mean? Mila called and told us that you were in trouble, so I just assumed…”

Caelum didn’t eavesdrop on the messages I sent to the Mouse,” I interrupted.

Then what?”

I gave Devlin a long look while I massaged my muscles. The soreness I’d anticipated was making an appearance much earlier than I would have thought possible.

Devlin’s face told the story of his understanding in stages. First, there was confusion. Then, a flicker of an idea, glinting like a spark in his eyes. Then, doubt. Finally, absolute horror.

He was your friend,” Devlin said. “But you’re telling me that…you mean that he’s…”

Yes, to all of the above.”

I pulled out my phone and checked my text messages. Nothing new caught my attention, but I couldn’t exactly trust my electronics anymore. My phone had been used as a hotspot before. Literally anything I’d ever connected to my personal network was suspect now. It was a good thing I’d been steadily losing equipment over the previous months, I supposed.

Are you okay?” Devlin asked.

I’m…fine. I’ll be fine. Whatever, it’s not important right now.”

It’s extremely important,” Devlin protested. He started to say more, but I shut him up with a waved hand.

It’s not important right now,” I repeated. I lowered my window and threw the phone out onto the road. “You’re going to need a crash course in network technology, Dev, but that’ll have to wait until later. For the moment, you just need to know this: we are all in serious trouble.”

The color left his face for a few heartbeats. Then, he took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut. When they opened again, he’d wrestled down his concern and replaced it with professionalism, which I appreciated. It was easier to deal with professionalism when I was already trying not to drown in self-recriminations.

How bad?”

It’s hard to know for sure,” I said. “He worked his way into my network, but he hasn’t been there long enough to get past all of my security. I think.”

You think?”

I shook my head. “Yeah. There’s really no way to know. I’m choosing to err in favor of possibilities. If my entire network was compromised…” I mimed an explosion with my hands.

Even Devlin’s professionalism fractured momentarily at that imagery. He regained a calm expression before asking his next question. “How much could he find out?”

Off hand? Banking information, cover identities, safe houses: those would all be at the top of the priority list. With the banking stuff, he’d be able to freeze our accounts, but that’s not the worst of it. He’ll be able to track where we’ve spent or are spending money, moving forward. That, cross-referenced with the other two things, means that we’d never be able to hide with any certainty ever again.”

Could you create new identities?”

I’ll have to do that anyway,” I said, “but I can’t do that now. The software I use to create identities like that relies on databases I’ve…worked my way into over the years. I can’t use those databases, because I’d still have to log into my system.”

Devlin digested that. “What else?”

Our identities aren’t technically stored anywhere, but it wouldn’t be difficult to figure them out through process of elimination. Following along our trail, connecting the dots…that’s the kind of thing the Mouse was good at.” I passed a weary hand in front of my eyes and realized how tired I was. Adrenaline was a rush, but coming down from that high was an absolute bitch. “Or Caelum. Whatever you want to call him.”

What can we do, then?”

I bought us some time,” I said. “Not much, but it was all I could do.”

How?”

I thought about the best way to explain ransomware to Devlin. It wasn’t a difficult concept, but it involved some elements of cryptography that he probably wouldn’t follow.

It’s like…a safe,” I said. “I put everything into a safe that no one can open for thirty days. He won’t be able to get into it until that time limit expires, but neither will I. Which isn’t that big of a loss. I couldn’t use any of that data anyway, now that it’s all been compromised.”

A month,” Devlin repeated. He pursed his lips in thought. “What’re we going to do in a month?”

I forced myself to stop slouching into the backseat of the car. Back in Tangiers, I’d decided to throw myself into the pursuit of my friend and I’d brought the rest of the team along with me. It hadn’t been their fight, but they’d followed cheerfully in the path I laid out for them. They had chosen to have faith in me, to believe that I knew what I was doing.

But I hadn’t known. And, because of my shortsightedness, we were all in terrible danger. In a month, the ransomware program would delete itself and all of my files would revert to their previous state. It wouldn’t take the Mouse long to get through my security, considering that he’d have access to the original passwords used to access them. When that happened, he’d know who I was, what I’d been doing, and who my friends were.

If I was right, and the Mouse was working at the behest of the Magi, it was reasonable to assume that they would find out about us also. When and if that happened, exposure would be the least of my concerns.

We’ll need help,” I said. “The other three members of the Community left will go into hiding as soon as they figure out what happened, but they’re still the three best hackers that I know of. Without them, we don’t stand any chance of pulling off what we actually need to do.”

Mila, who had been silent since returning to the car, perked up a little. “We find the Mouse,” she said.

We find the Mouse,” I confirmed. “We find him and we take him down.”

Devlin nodded. Mila did the same. Michel didn’t look away from the road, but his head bobbed up and down as well.

Alright,” Devlin said. “Alright, we can do this. But where do we start? How do we start? If we can’t use any of our money without tipping him off…”

The car slowed, then stopped. I looked up at Michel for an instant before my eyes flickered over to gaze through the rear passenger window. I had to focus to make out the sign through the slightly tinted windows but, when I did, a hand went involuntarily up to my mouth. I checked the time twice before Michel’s intentions sank in.

Why would you -”

Do you have any other idea?” Michel asked.

I didn’t. “Michel, Mila, Devlin; stay in the car. I need to take care of this on my own.”

I expected a complaint from Mila, but she simply nodded. Devlin’s eyebrows knitted together and it looked like he might argue. I got out of the car before he had the opportunity to do that. I wasn’t sure if my willpower would hold up under the assault of even the flimsiest argument.

It was a short walk from the car to the front entrance and a slightly longer one from the front entrance to the carpeted area of the building. Someone called out as I passed by and I ignored them. I only had eyes for one person and I needed to say what was on my mind before my better judgment could get in the way.

I reached the table less than a minute later. CJ noticed me first and, almost immediately, assumed an expression of equal parts wariness and embarrassment. He tapped his date on the shoulder and she looked up to take in the sight of me.

Sarah?’ Virginia asked. “You’re a little early, And you didn’t bring your husband!”

I felt long overdue tears welling up in my eyes. The Mouse’s betrayal had struck at my core, but dealing with it hadn’t been useful yet. It wasn’t useful now, so I pressed down on those emotions with all of my might.

Virginia,” I said in a tremulous voice.

I tried to strengthen it with my will and the resulting amalgamation came out sounding more like a threat than a request. Maybe it was both.

Virignia,” I tried again, sounding less petulant and more in control of myself. “I’m…I’m going to need your help.”

Chapter 60

The Mouse wasn’t running from Caelum.  He was Caelum.  Since Tangiers – hell, maybe even before Tangiers or even London – I’d been working with the digital bogeyman that gave experienced members of the Community nightmares.  Everything I’d discovered or that I thought I’d discovered must have been carefully planted in order to further the deception, to goad me into making rash decisions that didn’t allow for proper consideration.

I didn’t know how he’d done it but, at some point, the Mouse must have gained root access to my laptop.  That explained the malfunctioning clock and, now that I thought about it, the marked increase in sporadic freezes my laptop had suffered over the last few days.  So he’d been able to monitor my discoveries in real time, then tailor his messages to evoke the appropriate amount of hastiness in me.  And, merrily following the trail of bait he’d laid out for me, I hadn’t just walked into the museum without backup.  For all intents and purposes, I’d brought the Community with me. 

By accessing my computer at the same time, they were providing IP addresses that could be traced.  Of course they’d be using redundant security protocols, proxies, and other methods to disguise their real location.  Under normal circumstances, that would be enough to keep all but the most preternaturally talented hackers at bay.  Now, though?  With the dawning revelation that the Mouse had been a key member of the Community’s highest echelon for years and that, in all probability, he had helped to develop some of those security tactics?  I couldn’t assume anyone would be safe right now.    

That dealt with the last three holdouts in the Community.  Years spent biding his time had allowed him to get the necessary information an attacker would need to start pulling strings and unraveling false identities.  For me, he had something special in mind.  He’d used me as the tool to gather them all in one place, electronically speaking, and the Mouse wouldn’t need to run down my digital trail. 

He already knew exactly where I was standing.

Instead of leaping into action or berating myself for my own blindness, I stupidly wasted a few precious seconds talking into dead air.  “Devlin?  Michel?  Are you still there?”

No response came back.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that someone was jamming the communications frequency.  That should have been impossible to accomplish without far more time and equipment, except that I kept a record of frequencies on my servers.  Changing between frequencies at random was generally enough to stymie any attacks, but that wouldn’t really matter if the Mouse had been able to gain control of the programs that generated those frequencies.  Then, the very algorithms I used to select available frequencies would be compromised.  Any result that I received would have already been known to the Mouse or, potentially, even selected by him.

It was even worse than that, I realized a moment later.  If someone were capable of jamming the earbuds, that person would also be equally capable of simply listening in on whatever we said.  I ran through everything we’d said since going live with the earbuds.  We’d only used first names and there’d been a reference to my grandmother, but Michel hadn’t mentioned Virginia specifically.  That information was still secret, at least.

It wouldn’t be a secret for long, though.  My connection to the world outside of the museum had been neatly severed, separating me from even the possibility of help. He hadn’t done that for no reason.

I struggled to get my thoughts into some semblance of order.  Fragmented ideas and belated realizations about the Mouse’s true nature kept getting in the way, barging in to disrupt half-formed plans before they had an opportunity to congeal.  I wasted a good thirty to forty seconds just trying to clear my head of those images before I was able to devote any time at all to the immediate, dire situation.

First things first: if I was the Mouse, how would I capitalize on this moment? 

Answer: I’d capitalize on the opportunity. In most scenarios, a hacker could be easily captured in person by anyone willing to spend the money for a well-trained team of gunmen.  I had Mila for those purposes – not that I would ever use her services for that – but, as far as I knew, the Mouse didn’t have access to those types of resources.

He wouldn’t need to hire a particularly large team, though, or even a well-trained one.  Just a few local hires would do just fine.  Odds were high that someone was coming to retrieve ‘Irene’ and I had no intention of allowing them to catch Sarah Ford in the process.

I looked at my laptop, where Max and Frizzle had escalated into an argument of their own.  They were in danger, even if they didn’t know it yet.  If my computer was as thoroughly subverted as I suspected, my efforts to secure the VPN would be less than useless.  The attacker would be able to waltz through my defenses as if they weren’t there.  From that point, it would only be a matter of time before he acquired the permissions necessary to start pulling IP information that would help identify the last three true members of the Community.

But, while their danger was impending, mine was imminent.  I abandoned the laptop where it sat and cast my eyes wildly around the room in search of somewhere to hide. 

The nearest wall ran parallel to one directly across from it, except for a small gap where it dipped in to allow space for a statue.  That statue wasn’t there at the moment.  It would be a tight fit and it wasn’t even a particularly good hiding spot, but it was better than standing out in the open.  I ducked into the alcove and pressed myself as deeply into the recess as possible.

I waited, cramped and uneasy, in the alcove for almost a minute before I heard someone call out from a distant room.  “Irene?  Is that you?”

The speaker sounded like a native speaker. Not just native to America, but native to the South specifically.  At least my guess about the local hires had been accurate.  I sucked in a breath and held it, straining my ears to catch any other sound.

It’s me,” the voice continued, drawing closer every second.  “It took me longer to get here than I expected, but I knew you’d wait for me.  You’re here to help, aren’t you?”

I said nothing.  I didn’t even want to think too loud, but the tempest of connections continued to rage unabated in between my ears.  Nothing I could do about that, for the moment.

A beam of light appeared in a far doorway which led to a hallway which, in turn, led to the back exit of the Mason.  That was a possibility.  Or it would have been one, if there weren’t two men approaching along that same vector. 

They looked like regular, run-of-the-mill bruisers that anyone could find for cheap at a strip club’s midday buffet or loitering outside of the local drunk tank.  The men carried handguns, but they didn’t have Mila’s casual danger surrounding them.  And, oddest of all, the light that I’d seen didn’t come from flashlights in their hands; both men wore headbands with mounted cameras.

The man in the lead gestured for his cohort to circle the room clockwise, while he went counterclockwise.  My hiding place was concealed from them, by virtue of a large center piece in the room and the poor lighting, but it wouldn’t hold up for long under a deliberate, focused search.  Still, there was nowhere for me to move to, so I had no real choice except to wait and hope for an opportunity.  There were still two cans of pepper spray in my bag, as well as the stun gun.  If I could distract one of the bruisers long enough to make it back to my bag, where I’d left it under the bench, there was a chance.  A tiny chance, an almost insultingly minuscule chance, but a chance was still better than nothing.

Irene?”  The voice had come from the cohort, the man who circled around the room clockwise.  He tried to move stealthily, but his over-sized, ratty boots clomped heavily against the Mason’s floor with each step.  “You said you’d be here, Irene.”

Devlin might show up at any moment.  If I didn’t respond to his checkups, he’d probably assume something had gone wrong.  He didn’t have the information necessary to realize that the Mouse and Caelum were one and the same, but he could still assume the worst.  His training with Mila had gone a lot better than mine plus Michel was with him.  Between the three of us, I was certain that we could handle two local bruisers without too much difficulty.

With them taken care of, maybe I’d be able to do…something in retaliation or self-defense.  I couldn’t imagine what, but there had to be something.

You said she’d be here,” the cohort said.  “Said it’d be a quick thing, in and out.”

I waited for the man circling in the opposite direction to respond, but he didn’t even seem to notice that his cohort had spoken.  The cohort, strangely, didn’t take any offense at being ignored.  He stopped walking, tilted his head to one side for a second or two, and then shrugged.

It’s your money,” he said.  “Don’t know why you want to throw it away so bad, though.”

The other man paused as well.  “How about you don’t talk the client out of paying us, huh?”

I’m not trying to.  But I don’t want to do all this work and then not get paid because some bitch didn’t show up when she was supposed to.  I’m not trying to go back in because of some firearms charge.”

That exchange told me several things.  These weren’t just regular bruisers; they were convicts.  There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with that – Devlin was technically a convict, if you went by the Parisian record – but it did speak to a certain desperation.  They’d taken this job without knowing all of the details, because the money had simply been too much to pass up.  In order to accomplish that job, the men must have violated the terms of their parole and acquired illegal weapons. 

If things became physical, I wouldn’t have to worry about either of these men going to the police. 

The headbands were strange, though, and I had to risk peeking slightly out of my hiding spot to get a better look at the cohort’s equipment to understand what they actually were.  While Devlin, Michel, Mila and I used button cameras and custom earbuds, the two convicts were equipped with GoPros and what looked like store bought Bluetooth headsets.  When they spoke to no one at all, they were actually talking to their employer.  They were in communication with the Mouse. 

I slammed myself back into the recess, much harder than necessary, and forced myself to breathe slowly.  Cameras changed everything.  It wouldn’t matter if I took out either, or even both, of the men.  It would only take a single captured frame of my face before the Mouse would be able to find out my real name no matter what.  Leaving the country wouldn’t help, because he probably had ways – under his identity as Caelum – to track local airports.  Going underground wouldn’t be any guarantee of protection because it would be only too easy to put a price on my head.  There were always unsavory types willing to do dirty work, so long as no one would have to know about it.

My dual identity as Irene and as Sarah wouldn’t just fall to pieces under the light of day; it would violently implode and crush me to a speck of a human being in the process. 

I couldn’t even let them see me.  Even a second would be too long.  But both men started moving again at some command delivered via the headsets and I didn’t have much time before they stumbled upon me.  They were already close enough to the laptop that they –

The counter-clockwise man stopped, probably only a few steps away from a position where he’d be able to see me.  “What’s that?”

What’re you talking about?”

That, right there.  Looks like…is that a computer?”

He took one step forward to get a better look, then another to make certain that his vision wasn’t playing tricks on him in the low light.  Another step would bring him almost level with me.  Even in the darkness, his head-mounted flashlight would be more than bright enough to reveal me.  In that instant, the man’s employer would have a perfect view of my frozen, stunned expression.  I wouldn’t have anywhere to go and I stood absolutely no chance against two armed men, no matter how poorly trained or disciplined they happened to be.  There were no good choices, though. Only necessary ones.

I felt the storm of thoughts in my head suddenly die down.  They were replaced by a single word that echoed through my brain and drove me to action. 

Escape.

Before the man to my left could take another step, I launched myself at him like a human javelin. I kept my face down, eyes pointed at the ground, so I didn’t see him when I drove myself into his gut with all the desperate force my legs could muster. He had me by seventy or eighty pounds, easily, but he hadn’t been prepared for an attack. My tackle caught him with only one foot on the ground and his weight in a precarious position. He went down, grunting with pain as the air rushed explosively out of his open mouth.

His GoPro must not have been attached strongly to his headband, because it popped free of its holder and flew away, skidding on the ground and coming to a halt with its lens facing in the opposite direction. Already, I could hear the other convict approaching from behind in a series of quick, heavy footfalls. His camera would be as damaging to my identity as any other, so I disengaged from my first victim and rolled across the floor towards my abandoned bag. The second man hadn’t been expecting that and he froze for the two seconds I needed.

My hand darted into the bag’s open mouth. I grasped around blindly, bumping the stun gun away in my panic, until my fingers closed around the smooth cylindrical pepper spray canister. I jerked the canister free of the bag and started emptying its contents even before I had an opportunity to aim. I hit nothing but empty air for the first few moments, as I rolled onto my back. Then the stream of capsaicin found a target.

The second convict received a faceful of pepper spray. To him, it must have felt like I’d thrown pure fire into his eyes. He roared in pain, staggered back, and wiped crazily at his eyes. Screaming and stumbling, he backed away from me like a crazed animal. I allowed myself a fierce, tight smile at his agony.

That smile didn’t last long. The first man, the one who had almost stumbled onto me in the first place, had recovered his balance and he was angry. My brain barely tracked the swift movement in my peripheral vision and then a swift kick knocked the pepper spray canister out of my hands. Another, aimed at my face, landed in my ribs instead as I turned onto my stomach, in order to keep my face concealed.

At least I’d made an effort. Looking up, even if only for the few seconds necessary to find my bag again, wasn’t an option anymore. The lone remaining convict was perfectly willing to cause serious, disfiguring damage. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t simply break my hand the instant I reached out.

I waited for the inevitable attack, but it didn’t come. The man looming over me spat out a mouthful of phlegm and blood that landed only a few inches away from me. “You said it’d be easy,” he said.

Silence, while he listened to something via the Bluetooth headset.

You’re damn right you’re gonna pay double for this,” the man said. “I could’ve done half as much work for twice as much money.”

More silence.

What? I thought you wanted us to bring her to you.”

Yet again, silence. The breaks in conversation only lasted for a few moments each, but each pause felt like an eternity. I didn’t dare raise my head to actually see what was going on.

If that’s what you want,” the man said. He took two steps away from me, judging from the sound of his boots against the floor, then returned. He’d gotten the GoPro, I knew.

So, you just want to –“

He didn’t get to finish that thought. I could tell the difference between his heavy boots and the new sound that reached my ears: light, rushed steps, like rain on a tin roof. The man made a surprised sound in his throat, which cut off after an instant. I held my breath, hoping for a miracle.

I heard the sounds of a brief, furious scuffle, a grunt of pain, and the unmistakable crack of a bone being broken. Something heavy fell to the ground to one side of me. Then, a hand fell on my shoulder. I exhaled slowly and raised my head a fraction of an inch.

Mila looked down at me. Her pupils were dilated, her nostrils flared wildly, and her breath came out in rapid puffs. “You’re okay?”

I nodded.

Good. Because you won’t be for long, if we don’t get the hell out of here.”

Chapter 59

It was dark inside the Mason. Of course it was dark. The large windows at the front of the museum were darkly tinted, the sun was already dipping below buildings in the distance, and all of the lights had been switched off by the last man out of the door.

I’d brought a flashlight, in case of that exact scenario, but I hesitated to use it. There was no way of guaranteeing privacy. Someone could walk by the museum at a critical moment, just in time to catch me switching on the flashlight, and rush to call the police. Or a curator could return to…oh, retrieve his charger from an office outlet. A million things could happen and, no matter how sparse the chances of those events taking place, I couldn’t risk burning down my bare-bones plan at the very outset. I kept the flashlight in my bag, hunched over to hide my face, and used the key Devlin had stolen in order to make my way inside the building and out of sight.

Is everything alright?” Devlin asked, via the earbud.

You just saw me,” I answered. “I think you’d have noticed if something had already gone wrong.”

I know that, I just…I’m just making sure. This isn’t exactly what you do, Sarah.”

I didn’t need him to remind me. This incursion marked the third time in less than a month – hell, barely over a week – that I’d been forced into the field. The previous two times, I’d been accompanied by someone with experience: Mila in Tangiers, Devlin at the Sovereign. I was alone now, except for his voice in my ear and the long shadows of the Mason’s statues.

Mila had never cornered me and forced a weapon into my bag, but I’d taken that initiative all by myself. In addition to my stun gun, I had no less than two separate canisters of pepper spray and a key chain that doubled as a pair of brass knuckles. Of those tools, the pepper spray and the stun gun were my only real viable options. If I had to punch someone, things would have already gone drastically wrong.

The anxiety and fear rushing through my veins didn’t make logical sense. The Mouse was an ally, if not exactly a friend. He’d reached out to me for help. There wasn’t any threat of an attack coming from someone who was already in trouble, especially directed at someone who intended to help. And even he did decide to attack? I had options at my disposal. I’d dealt with a drug dealing noble, assisted in the usurpation of gangsters from the Triad, and personally rescued a busload of orphans from a group of slavers. I wasn’t powerless away from the computer.

…unless the Magi had also found the Mouse. Then I wouldn’t be dealing with a hacker like Caelum or even a panicked ally like the Mouse. For the damage we’d dealt to their organization, the Magi would respond in force. Nothing in my bag of tricks would do anything to protect me from a bullet.

I swallowed nervously, clutched my bag closer to my chest, and stepped deeper into the shadows of the museum. It was too late to go back. The only way through this was through this.

I switched on the flashlight when I felt sure that no one from the street could possibly see the illumination and relaxed incrementally when I could actually see my surroundings again. I hadn’t actually returned to the Mason since pulling that first job with Devlin, but I could tell that they’d done well for themselves. There weren’t any remarkable masterpieces that I could see, but the original pieces they’d acquired from local talent were impressive in their own rights. There weren’t many statues deeper into the building, contrary to the cluster of marble and bronze men at the entrance, which I appreciated. The last thing I needed were more shadows to jump at.

I didn’t have to walk for very long. The gallery where I’d first met Devlin, where we’d decided to work together in order to steal a Renoir, was exactly where I remembered it being. At some point in the intervening decade or so, the Renoir had been replaced with a much more sedate piece that was either a Warhol or an artist doing their level best to impersonate a Warhol.

They’ve got your favorite artist here,” I said under my breath.

Botticelli? Really?” Devlin’s excitement transferred through the line. Then, he picked up the joking tone in my voice and he scoffed. “Oh. Warhol.”

You do realize a lot of people like his work, don’t you?”

A lot of people have bad taste,” he replied, without missing a beat.

It was a common back-and-forth between us. I didn’t think that Devlin actually had a problem with Warhol’s work, but we’d once worked a job with a loosely bound collective of counterfeiters. The leader of that gang had sworn that Warhol’s work was the pinnacle of artistic expression. Things hadn’t ended well with that particular group, though, and Devlin had carried a grudge against the artist ever since.

The familiarity went a long way to settling my nerves. It wasn’t a perfect solution – my body was still vibrating with tension – but I felt better able to focus. Whether he’d intended it or not, Devlin’s old habits provided me with some solid ground beneath my metaphorical feet.

Thanks,” I said.

For what?”

Don’t worry about it,” I said. I found a bench and placed my laptop there. “Now be quiet. I’ve got work to do before the Mouse gets here.”

There was still a little time before the appointed meeting time. My extended nap notwithstanding, I’d always planned to get here with a little bit of a temporal cushion. I needed to connect to my own VPN, for instance, and I could use the extra minutes to take the Community’s collective and individual temperatures.

Max would probably be steady and predictable, same as she always was. The threat represented by Caelum had pushed her out of ordinary operating procedure, but I was confident that she’d calm down when the Mouse explained himself. Frizzle would probably follow Max’ lead. She’d never been a very strong, dominating personality on the rare occasions when the upper echelon of the Community had needed to discuss something.

Gate was a problem, though. The only solid information I had was her – if it was even a her, but no one really had any idea – solid predilection for conspiracy theories. She saw enemies lurking around every corner, even in her own bolt holes. I couldn’t imagine how she’d react when the Mouse told her about the very real enemies whose ire he’d aroused.

My laptop finished connecting with the private network and I glanced down at the clock at the bottom of the screen. There were ten minutes remaining before the Mouse’s scheduled appearance. I could get a better grip on things in ten minutes. It took Gate less than fifteen seconds to upend that plan.

Gate: Thought you weren’t going to show up.

Irene: What good would that do me? I’m the only one trying to stop you from committing suicide.

Gate: What makes you think it’d be suicide? We’re not all as new to this as you are.

Irene: We’re not all as frightened as you are, either, but we all make do.

Max: This is NOT the time, you two. Get it together or I’ll leave right now.

I took a deep breath. A pissing match with Gate wouldn’t do me any favors, either now or in the long term. I certainly couldn’t afford to lose Max. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on the Community’s activities and steer them away from directly inciting the Magi’s wrath.

Irene: You’re right. Sorry. This is stressful.

Frizzle: I can imagine. You’re the one who volunteered to meet him in person.

Even without the gift of body language or audible speech, Frizzle managed to infuse those last two words with an intonation generally reserved for racist jokes or dark, forbidden rituals. I almost had to smile at how horrified she seemed to be at the very prospect. I wondered how the members of the Community would react if they knew how prolific I’d actually become in the last six months.

Gate: I’m not apologizing for anything. I’m only here to make sure that the Mouse didn’t start a fight that he can’t win.

Irene: He almost certainly did. But that’s not really the problem, is it? You want to know if he started a fight that we can’t win. As a group, working together.

Max: That’s not how we work, Irene. You know that.

Irene: That’s not how we worked, past tense. Max, you’ve been active and following what’s been going on. Tell me that you really believe this is going to end with the Mouse.

Max: …

Irene: Can you even say, with any certainty, that you think this even started with the Mouse?

Max: No. I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I want to get involved in a fight that I didn’t start.

Frizzle: I agree with Max. All I want to do is be left alone.

Irene: You might not get that option, Frizz. If he’s back, none of us will.

That shut the room up. I suspected that, for all of their technical skills, the members of the Community weren’t the type to face actual threats. They hid, they avoided, they misled…and, when pushed, they cut network connections and caught flights out of the country. Caelum was someone they couldn’t run away from, because he could attack them via the same means they could use to defend themselves. Only he’d proven himself more skilled in the past. Nothing so far said that he wouldn’t prove the same, if given an opportunity to do so.

In that way, I had an advantage over them. In their own ways, Max, Frizzle and Gate were more talented hackers than me. I was a quick learner, but they’d been sharing information and techniques in the Community for years. I kept one foot firmly planted in the real world, though, while they seemed to prefer digital existence. Whether that grounding came from my family, my friends, or my endlessly complicated relationship with Devlin, it meant I wasn’t able to completely disconnect. That was a weakness in some ways. When dealing with a phantom who existed only as lines of code on the internet, my connections served as an escape route.

No matter how frighteningly talented he was, Caelum couldn’t hack me.

I tuned back into the chat room. Frizzle and Gate had started talking again, but the conversation wasn’t directed at me. I skimmed up a few lines to grasp the general mood and then scrolled back down. My long-suffering laptop took a second to obey the command and I told myself, for the millionth time, to purchase a new station and put this poor thing out of its misery.

Michel’s voice came over the earbud. “Sarah?”

A little busy,” I murmured. Then, feeling a little bad that my tone wasn’t entirely due to his interruption, “What is it?”

It is, uh…your grandmother. She wants to know if the two of you are still on for dinner. I do not know what you want me to say to her.”

That was the last thing I needed distracting me right now. The Mouse would be here any minute, the Community seemed to be leaning towards a policy of non-intervention, and my stupid laptop refused to work properly. Even thinking about my grandmother cued a fresh wave of guilt.

Tell her that we’ll be a little late,” I said. “I don’t know how long this is going to take.”

But we are not going to be there at all?”

No, Michel, we aren’t. As soon as we finish with the Mouse, we’ve got to find the Texan and get him off of our backs. Then I’ve got to deal with this Caelum situation and I just don’t have the time to -”

I stopped, mid-sentence, as things started to fall into place. Adrenaline had been steadily filling my veins since entering the museum. Without that, I might have missed the tiny details or failed to connect the dots I’d been overlooking for days. With the adrenaline, however, time seemed to stretch out. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours, and I had all the time in the world to see how stupid I’d been and how thoroughly I’d screwed myself.

There was the setting, for starters. In my enthusiasm and excitement, I’d acknowledged and immediately forgotten a very obvious point: namely, that the Mouse could not possibly have known about the location of the job I’d pulled with Devlin. There were no public records of the crime and no trail to follow that could point to either of us. Even if the Mouse had intended the buried newspaper article to refer to a different touchstone, that still wouldn’t have explained why he was in Atlanta, of all places. He didn’t know my name. He didn’t know where I’d spent my childhood. He didn’t even know that I was American. Yet, the newspaper article had been specifically keyed for a memory that only two people possessed.

And he hadn’t figured out that we’d hit the Mason as our inaugural theft. Not at all. I’d told him, when I set the meeting. Then, distracted with the effort of securing a VPN for the rest of the Community to use, and rushed by the timeline I’d allowed him to set, I hadn’t been able to scout the location at all. The closest we’d come had been Devlin’s brief exploration, when he’d lifted a key to grant me access.

Even if I ignored the fact that I’d allowed the Mouse to pick the location and to set it up to his liking before I even arrived, there were other problems I’d overlooked in my zeal to play the hero. Every message I’d received from the Mouse had been timed, practically tailored to apply more pressure. He’d forced me to rush ahead without proper planning into dangerous situations I’d never dealt with before. Each time I’d barely made it out with just enough information to find the next clue. From Tangiers to Atlanta. From Atlanta to the Sovereign. From the Soveriegn to here. It was a perfectly laid trail of breadcrumbs, tantalizing enough that I wouldn’t have been able to ignore the puzzle.

He would have known that much about me. We’d worked together over too many similar puzzles over the years. If there was anything that would force me to forget about common sense, logical hiccups, or my goddamned self-preservation, it would be a puzzle. And so, he’d given me one perfectly designed to do more than draw me in. In my desire to find the solution, to figure out where he’d gone hiding, the Mouse had forced me to give up more information about myself than I would ever knowingly have offered. I’d practically handed it to him on a platter.

In the depths of my mounting horror, yet another horrifying thought struck me like a falling hammer. I looked down at the bottom right corner of my screen: 6:20 PM. I checked my phone: 6:35 PM. I’d been watching the time out of my peripheral vision, not consciously tracking it, but I hadn’t devoted enough of my attention to realize the discrepancy. The fact that the Mouse was late didn’t bother me. What sent my heart rate skyrocketing into the triple digits was the knowledge that my laptop – belabored, certainly, but not failing – wasn’t accurately recording the time anymore.

But, if my hunch was right, it wasn’t really my laptop anymore.

Devlin,” I whispered, “I think I made a -”

The earbud vibrated twice in my ear, signaling a disconnection. Then it died entirely.

Chapter 58

I spent the night preparing, as best as I could, for the meeting at the Mason.  That mostly consisted of fortifying the network defenses on my laptop and tablet, dodging any personal conversations with Virginia, and thinking my way through what I’d say to the Mouse when I met him.  We’d known each other, in a strictly digital sense, for years; much of that time had been spent working together on various projects or exchanging knowledge.  In a way, he was one of my closest friends in the criminal lifestyle.  Alex was closer and Devlin was…a unique fixture of my life, but the Mouse was a steady presence.

Except that I’d never actually seen his face or even heard his voice.  I couldn’t know how he felt about that, but it was definitely strange for me.  Would he recognize me as one of the Ford family?  I tried to avoid headlines and photographers, but I hadn’t always been entirely successful about that. Maybe he wasn’t even American, though.  If that were the case, the chances of him caring about the Ford clan dropped precipitously.

For the first time in a long time, I wondered if the Mouse was even male.  Our method of communication left a lot of room for disguises and he wouldn’t be the first hacker to conceal their real gender.  He’d asked me out once – well, more than once – but even that didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she.’  It would make the meeting a lot more awkward, that much was certain.  Did it have to change the way I approached the task of recruitment?  Maybe.  Probably not, but maybe. 

I stumbled over the question of how much to tell him, too.  He’d have to know about the Magi if we brought him in as another hacker, but how much did he have to know?  I wouldn’t tell him about the Lady, obviously, unless I absolutely had to.  I’d leave Alex and his family out of his retelling, as well. He and his daughter had managed to escape London with their lives, along with a wealth of revised history to correct, and I wasn’t going to be the one who pulled them back into the morass.  It would probably be safe to talk about Mila’s contributions to our collective.  The fact that Michel was relatively new to the game would also be fair ground.  Devlin…I didn’t know what to say about Devlin, because I wasn’t sure what I thought about him.  I’d just have to keep any discussion on him as brief and terse as possible. 

Those and a thousand other questions flickered through my thoughts all through the night, while my fingers tirelessly worked to write new firewall rules and to block access ports.  The technical work happened by pure reflex, automated actions that I’d trained myself to do without devoting too much attention to the details.  It left my mind free to skip from idea to idea without pausing every few moments to double-check my coding.

I worked all through the night, pausing occasionally only to grab another soda, until I ran out of steam and passed out at my computer desk.  When I eventually woke back up again, I’d been moved from the desk and into the bed, under the sheets.  I felt a moment of shocked embarrassment until I realized that, thankfully, I was still fully dressed beneath the covers.  My phone was on the bed stand next to me; I checked it for the time and a rush of adrenaline pushed me out of bed.  It was four-thirty in the afternoon.  There wasn’t much time left before the meeting at the Mason.

There was just enough time for me to shower, though, and to change into clothes I hadn’t been wearing for an entire day.  A simple t-shirt and jeans would have been fine for the occasion – it wasn’t like I had any reason to impress the Mouse – but vanity wouldn’t allow me to do that.  Instead, I picked out a nice blouse, a pair of slacks, and some black flats that I’d been looking for an excuse to wear.  The shoes had been…’gifts’ was probably the closest word…sent from the Lady.  As much as it disturbed me that she knew my shoe size, I couldn’t deny that the woman had taste.  The flats were as comfortable as running sneakers and infinitely more stylish. 

With that accomplished, I threw my laptop and tablet into a bag and hurried downstairs.  Michel and Devlin were lounging around in one of the television rooms, engaged with something on the screen.  Sam’s fluffy posterior took up an entire seat to himself, while he preened and cleaned himself, but Mila herself was nowhere to be found.

Devlin noticed my arrival first.  “I was just about to come get you,” he said.

Why didn’t you come up earlier?” I asked.  “You let me sleep all day, Dev.”

Sure, but only because you were up all night,” he countered.  “You don’t think it’d be a good idea if our point of contact isn’t on the verge of passing out during this meeting?”

I started to snap out a retort, but he was right.  Losing an entire business day of planning wasn’t great, but it was a hell of a lot better than meeting the Mouse in person while operating under the effects of sleep deprivation.

Where’s Mila?” I asked, hoping he’d allow me to change the subject.

She went out for something to eat,” Michel said.  “I do not think she likes this plan of yours very much and she eats like that when she is stressed.”

She always eats like that,” I said.

Michel shrugged.

While you were asleep,” Devlin cut in, “I paid a little visit to the Mason.  Security’s not great there, which we already knew, but there were a few curators there with flexible security procedures.”  He dangled a key in front of his face.  “This’ll get you in to the building without raising any alarms.”

I’d been planning on picking the lock for entrance, even though that had never been one of my skills.  “What’re you going to do if someone notices the missing key?” I asked.  “It’s not like whoever you took that from isn’t going to have to close the museum when they leave.”

Which is why I made a copy and returned the original before heading back here.”  Devlin smirked.  “You know, I did do this for a long time without you.

How you avoided capture and jail time without someone looking over your shoulder is a mystery that I will never understand.”  I checked my phone again.  My shower had eaten up twenty minutes and this conversation was threatening to take up to five before we were both finished with our banter.  That left only fifteen minutes before Community members began logging into the VPN.  If they were online, and I wasn’t, they’d absolutely assume that I was trying to hide from them. 

Michel, can you drive?” I asked.  He responded with a flat look and I held up my hands in the universal sign of surrender.  “I mean, can you drive now? I need to get started setting up things on my laptop and using it here runs the risk of staining Virginia’s wireless internet with my…fingerprint, for lack of a better word.”

You’ve been using it since we got here,” Devlin pointed out.  He stood up, as he said it, and switched the television off.  “What’s the difference?”

I haven’t logged into the Community on this internet,” I said.  “If someone noticed the levels of encryption and hashing that go into a simple message in that group, they’d have a lot of questions for the supposed old woman who lives here.  Questions that would result in police attention and task forces, should that traffic be passed high enough up the ladder.”

So you’re going to use the museum’s instead?”

Ultimately.  When I get there.  For right now, I’m just going to tether it to my phone and use that as a hotspot.  It’s not a perfect solution, but I’m strapped for time now.”

Michel got up as well.  “I am ready to go when you are.”

There was an SUV in the front driveway that I didn’t recognize.  Michel didn’t strike me as a typical SUV driver, so I raised an eyebrow.  “Changing things up, Devlin?”

He snorted.  “Your grandmother left an hour or two ago to take a meeting about…something.  I honestly wasn’t paying attention.  But she dropped this off, in case you and Michel wanted to drive over to meet her for dinner later.”

A needle of guilt stabbed through my heart.  I had made Virginia that promise.  Emailing her after the fact, when she’d been waiting patiently for me and my fake husband to arrive, wouldn’t be enough to make up for the deception.  I could only hope that she’d eventually understand.  

Barring that, I’d have to settle for the few glorious moments of actual familial warmth from the woman I’d enjoyed over the last few days.  That hadn’t been the customary tenor of our relationship.  I knew that, if I left without so much as a warning, I probably wouldn’t be able to regain that warmth a second time; I also knew that strong family ties wasn’t really a common touchstone in the lives of thieves. 

I reminded myself that it was a necessary sacrifice.  For my life and for the rest of my team, I’d have to give up a good relationship with my grandmother and, quite possibly, any chance at a normal life.  I knew it was a big decision, but I made it surprisingly quickly and with no noticeable hesitation.  Just because I was giving up something I’d always longed for didn’t mean that anyone else needed to know what I’d lost.

Looks good,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

Devlin tilted his head and looked at me for a long moment.  I waited for him to say something about my choice, expecting him to see through my indifferent posture.  He surprised me by keeping quiet, opening the door to the rear of the car, and gesturing for me to enter.  I climbed in to the back of the SUV, where there were convenient plugs I could use to power my laptop; Devlin got into the front passenger seat, so that I’d have room to spread out; and Michel took the driver’s position.  The three of us left the mansion, heading toward the Mason and a long overdue meeting.

Midday traffic was a real and present danger, but Michel must have scouted the route beforehand.  We took side streets, instead of the interstate, and bypassed the majority of delays along the way.  I worked diligently on my short-lived VPN, constructing digital walls to ensure that no one would be able to gain privileges over my own laptop.  I was so engrossed in my labors that I almost didn’t notice when Michel pulled the SUV into a parallel parking spot.

I glanced up from the laptop.  “This is it?”

Michel nodded.  “I do not know how close you want us to take you,” he said.  “But there are twenty-four hour cafes here, so it will not look strange if Devlin and I stay in the area.”

I nodded.  Michel was getting a head for this type of work, apparently.  A quick check at my surroundings proved that his instincts were spot-on.  In a two block radius from where we were parked, I saw at least three different cafes and a Starbucks on the corner.  Michel and Devlin could easily occupy their time without seeming to lurk.

Good work finding this,” I said to Michel.  “How far away is the museum?”

Devlin pointed out of his window.  “There’s a path through the…is that a park?  I guess it’s a park.  Anyway, there’s a path through there.  It takes you out to another cross street and the museum’s only a little bit up the street from there.”

He was already thinking of escape routes.  Devlin’s voice still had warmth, but I could almost feel it draining away.  In his cold, business-only mindset, I wondered if he would allow commitment to the job to override his concern for my well-being.  As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I felt instantly terrible for even entertaining the idea.  Devlin had always been a loyal friend – when he hadn’t been more than a friend – except for that one atrocious, irredeemable moment.  He didn’t deserve to be doubted like that.

But the thought refused to go away.

I passed out ear buds to Michel and Devlin, then input the commands that linked them all together.  “Obviously, you won’t be able to see anything the Community sends via the internet,” I said, “but you’ll at least be able to keep up with everything between me and the Mouse.”

You can’t…I don’t know, make it so that your conversation is mirrored onto the tablet?” Devlin asked.  “If one of them is working against you, I’d like to have a little more warning than your panicked cries for help.”

I shook my head.  “Sorry, but no.  Even if I had the patience to install the appropriate programs onto the tablet that would make it semi­-secure, it’d be pointless.  As soon as I started transmitting information, I’d be vulnerable to someone intercepting the traffic.”

My brief conversation with the Community was making me paranoid about saying Caelum’s name, as well.  I knew it was a silly superstition to adhere to, but I also went out of my way not to talk about the relative ease of a job until after the goods had been fenced. 

This way,” I continued, “the only person who’ll know what happens on my computer is me.  It’s the best way to go about it, if I want to keep everything perfectly secure.”

Devlin frowned and said nothing.

Are you sure that you do not want someone else to go with you?” Michel asked.  “I am sure that the Mouse would understand.  He is in danger also, after all.”

I’m not worried about him not understanding,” I said.  “I’m worried that he’ll say one other person and run away without allowing me a chance to even begin to explain.  When he shows up and I’m sure he isn’t going to leap out of the nearest window, I’ll tell him about you two.  You can sit in on the rest of the meeting from that point.  Deal?”

I directed that last bit to Devlin, who was still stewing silently in the front seat.  He didn’t respond at first.  Then, after an impossibly stretched out beat, he grunted and nodded.  “Deal,” he said.  “But I still don’t like it.”

I’ll be sure to log your complaint with the appropriate authorities,” I said. 

On impulse, I leaned forward and kissed Devlin on one cheek.  He twitched slightly away from me, clearly surprised.  He was almost, in fact, as surprised as I was.  In a desperate bid to normalize the moment, I kissed Michel on the cheek as well.  The Frenchman handled it a lot better.

Well,” I said, heat rising to my cheeks in a furious torrent of blood, “the sooner we get this over with, the better it is for all of us.  Atlanta’s starting to feel a bit too small, don’t you think?”

I practically jumped out of the SUV without waiting for a response.  Devlin rolled his window down, presumably to say something about that impulsive kiss, but I hurried to put distance between the two of us.  It was a purely instinctual reaction – that of the embarrassed individual trying desperately to avoid further contact with the reason for their embarrassment – and I was at least a dozen yards away before I regained control over my legs.  I steeled myself and turned back around, maybe just to say a better line than the one I’d used, but it was too late.  The SUV was still there, but no one was visible through the windows.  Devlin and Michel had already left, in search of positions nearby where they would be inconspicuous but still available.

I turned back around and looked into the ‘park.’  It was more a collection of overgrown trees, grass, and bushes than an actual park and the ‘path’ was a weaving line of downtrodden earth.  As escape routes went, it was better than most.  No path like this would show up on any official maps. 

As gateways leading to a meeting with a man I knew nothing about, who was being pursued by other men I knew nothing about, while trying to avoid a hacker that I also knew nothing about…it left a lot to be desired.

You aren’t the only one who doesn’t like it,” I muttered to Devlin, to the air, and to myself.

Chapter 57

Irene: I found him.

If there was anything the Community would appreciate, it was brevity.  With Caelum rounding up the less talented hackers in our roster, there wasn’t any reason to tiptoe around potentially dangerous subjects.  They’d given me an order, inasmuch as any group of full-fledged members could actually order another, to locate the Mouse.  Through him, they hoped to ward off Caelum or to at least buy themselves a little time, in order to formulate a better defensive strategy. 

I knew that wasn’t likely.  If Caelum’s leash was being held by the Magi, he wouldn’t cease his attacks until I’d been uncovered and the sporadic assaults on the Magi’s criminal enterprises stopped.  But, with the Mouse out from under siege and with the forces of the Community in my corner, it was possible that we might be able to accelerate the war effort.  Multiple attacks on different fronts wouldn’t just increase the pressure; it would also serve as effective camouflage, ensuring that no single group received the Magi’s full attention and the overwhelming weight of their forces.

That could come later.  Right now, I needed to stop the clock.

 

Frizzle: Where?

Irene: America.  He left breadcrumbs for us to find. I found them.

Frizzle: Doesn’t sound like something he’d do.

Gate: How are you so sure it isn’t someone just pretending to be the Mouse?

Irene: There are personal connections.  Things that only he and I would know.

Max: Are you sure about that?  Talented hackers can find almost anything, if they’re motivated.

 

Despite the time sensitive nature of their assignment, I noticed that Max and Gate were wary of mentioning Caelum’s name.  It was a strange position to take.  Everyone in the chat room was well-aware of the history.  We’d all been involved, in one form or another, with the effort that had…if not taken Caelum down, at least it had contributed to his decision to subside into the background.  And, if he had returned or chose to involve himself in unfolding events, we’d all be on the same chopping block.  What reason could they have to avoid the name itself, as if typing it out would summon him like Beetlejuice into our private room?

I had to remind myself that Max, Frizzle, and Gate were all humans, at their respective ends of the connection.  Their talents notwithstanding, they all had lives outside of the digital world, same as me.  Just as I went out of my way to avoid topics that made me uncomfortable – Mila, most recently; before that, my previous relationship with Devlin – it stood to reason that they might also be terrified of having their secrets exposed.  Avoiding Caelum’s name wouldn’t necessarily increase the chances of a happy resolution but, if it were a superstition that made them feel better, I was content to allow them the short-lived fiction. 

 

Irene: If someone found that information out, we’d be in a lot bigger trouble than we already are.

Max: …

Frizzle: …

Gate: I don’t trust it.  We’ve been looking for the Mouse for weeks and you find him in a couple of days?  It’s too easy.

Irene: Not if he was specifically hoping that I’d be the one searching for him.  He didn’t ask any of you for help, after all.

Gate: I’ve got my own questions about that.

 

Paranoia was one thing.  It was a reasonable reaction under the circumstances, perhaps even the most reasonable reaction.  But that didn’t extend to throwing undisguised suspicion my way, when I’d exposed myself to familial complications for the sake of saving the Community from public exposure.

 

Irene:  Maybe it only took me a few days because I was actually out here trying to find him, instead of hiding behind a computer screen and hoping someone else would take care of the problem for me.

Gate: Sure.  Or maybe you’re the one who ran the Mouse to ground in the first place.  You’ve been sketchy the last couple of months, and we’ve all noticed it.

 

True enough.  I’d been busy living my life, which hadn’t left me a lot of time to consider how my strange absences and equally strange requests might look to an outside observer.  Gate was an asshole, but at least her behavior had a basis in reality.  I couldn’t explain to her why she was wrong, though, and I couldn’t really defend myself.  As far as I knew, Gate was another one of the Magi’s deep cover agents.  Maybe even a sleeper agent who wasn’t aware of her true employer’s identity.  Allowing even the slightest detail to slip about my true agenda might end up leaking to nefarious parties.

Like Mila had said, we were all in this together.  It wasn’t my place to risk the safety of the team, just so that I could defend my ego.  Thankfully, Frizzle picked that moment to step in and bring the nascent argument to an abrupt close.

 

Frizzle: We don’t have the time to waste on this.  Gate, you were the one who wanted her to find the Mouse.  She did.

Irene: At least someone in this chat has some common sense.

Frizzle: That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of this, Irene.  You found him; what are you going to do next?

Max: Can you get him to log back on?

Irene: I can try, but I don’t think he’ll do it without some…assurances.  Someone was tracking him despite his own countermeasures.  If he uses his own system, that same party is likely to latch onto his specific signature and find him again.

Frizzle: Then what?  We didn’t want to re-establish contact with him for its own sake.

Gate: Exactly.  Whoever he pissed off is coming after all of us.  If he can’t or won’t help us, then we need to consider whether or not his membership should be extended.

 

For someone willing to openly attack my credibility, Gate was displaying an awful lot of euphemistic evasion.  She wasn’t talking about membership in the Community; she meant throwing the Mouse to the wolves, as a sacrifice, in hopes that Caelum or whoever else would content themselves with one notorious hacker and would then leave the rest of us alone.  It was a mercenary sensibility, devoid of loyalty…but we were all professional criminals. Just because Devlin ran his teams with honor and camaraderie, that didn’t mean every individual who made a living on the wrong side of the law would operate the same way.

The idea of betraying the Mouse hadn’t occurred to me…or, actually, it had occurred, but only in a roundabout fashion.  I knew that Mila would suggest cutting him loose, just as soon as she was caught up on events, and so I’d run through a list of reasons why that move wouldn’t help us.  Primarily, the Mouse didn’t actually know anything about our attacks on the Magi’s strongholds.  Uncovering his real name and kidnapping him off the streets wouldn’t give our adversaries the information they were after.  When they discovered that, odds were high that they’d simply dispose of the man and return to the attack.  It would give us a few days of respite, at most, before the Community was under assault again. 

More important than the logistical reasons, however, was the fact that he’d trusted me.  I’d never gotten into the habit of betraying people who trusted me.  Devlin didn’t do it.  Michel probably didn’t do it, but I couldn’t actually know for sure without specifically asking.  And Mila…Mila didn’t offer loyalty to anyone, besides the contract, and I could easily imagine that no one had trusted her – again, outside of the contract – before Devlin and me. As the Mouse wasn’t covered under the protective auspices of whatever deal Mila and the Lady had struck, it would seem perfectly logical to her to use him as a smokescreen. 

As long as I made my intractability on the position clear, though, I suspected that she’d follow orders.  Once we could get him on board – more on board, if not fully – and he proved himself to be an asset, there was at least a chance that she’d warm to him.

 

Irene: No need for all of that.  I’ll meet him.

 

The chat went silent for almost a minute.  I used the sixty seconds to check my phone for the date: Friday, a little after two-thirty.  The Mason Murer would be open for another three or four hours.  Six o’clock would be just after closing time, but the building’s security wasn’t overwhelming.  A little bit of work would cripple the security system and there weren’t physical guards to deal with.  I’d be able to slip in, meet with the Mouse, and slip out without any undue trouble.

Except, of course, for meeting the Mouse in person, but I’d cross that bridge when I reached it.

 

Max: You’re sure about that?

Irene: I don’t see any other option.

Gate: I want to talk to him too, but I’m not going to meet him in person.

Irene: I thought you might.  That’s why I set up a VPN for you all to use.  It’ll go active just before the meeting and delete itself when we’re finished.

 

I typed out the address for the VPN and posted it in a subfolder on the Community’s servers.  With that information and their own passwords, the remaining members of the Community would be able to effectively log into my computer while I was using it.  They wouldn’t have administrator rights or access to anything private – those files were sealed away behind staggeringly excessive encryption protocols – but they’d be able to access the local network without physically being present.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the only one I’d been able to come up with in the short amount of time I had available.

 

Frizzle: You’re using the security protocols I showed you?

Irene: And some extra measures I picked up over time.  Two-factor authentication, MAC filtering…no one will have access to your information but me and even I won’t know what passwords you entered.  Unless you don’t trust me?

Frizzle: I’m not the one who said that.  Max, if you want to sit this out, I’d understand.

Gate: And let the four of you decide what happens to my life?  I don’t think so.  I’ll just be taking my own safety precautions.  In case.

 

Just because no one else had anything on the matter, I didn’t believe for an instant that Frizzle and Max wouldn’t also be reinforcing their own systems as soon as the conversation ended.  It wouldn’t be a matter of distrust for them, as much as good practice.  Gate’s paranoia made perfect sense, viewed from the lens of someone without all of the information.  

 

Irene: Do what you have to.  I’ll activate the VPN tomorrow, at five.  Meeting is a hour and a half after that, so you should have enough time to check out the local network to your liking.

Max: …

Gate: It’s your show, Irene. 

Frizzle: See you at five.

 

They logged off, almost as one.  I suspected that they’d simply moved to another private chat room to discuss their next move.  It was irritating but, again, I didn’t exactly have room to complain.  I had my own secret strategy meeting to conduct.

The team and I were seated at a Starbucks, taking advantage of a poorly secured wireless access point emanating from an office building across the street.  No one paid any attention to a woman on her laptop, fervently typing with one hand as she downed a chai tea with the other.  Michel and Mila sat on the same side of the table, opposite me, talking about the finer points of some arm lock; Devlin was next to me, pretending to be interested in something on his phone.  Our legs brushed against each other under the table.  It wasn’t enough to be uncomfortable, but the light touch was noticeable in a way that might have distracted me in less dire circumstances.

Devlin noticed a shift in my body language, because he looked up from his phone.  “What did they say?”

They’re in,” I said.  “Or they will be.  They can’t risk doing anything else.”

You’re sure about that?”

I shrugged.  “As sure as I am about anything, yeah.  This isn’t the kind of thing that they have experience dealing with; odds are, they’ll default to following instructions until they can get their feet under them.”

You don’t have experience dealing with this,” Mila said.  She didn’t look up from her drink, which was about ninety-percent sugar and ten-percent foam. 

No,” I countered, “I don’t.  But I do work…well, closer to the field than they do, and I’ve been more active lately.  Besides, they don’t even know the full breadth of what we’re up against.  They’ll let me take point and, if things go wrong, I’m pretty sure they’ll let me take the fall for them.”

Speaking of that,” Devlin said, “I want to talk about this plan again.  You’re sure there’s no other way for you to deal with the Mouse situation without meeting him in person?”

I shook my head and downed a mouthful of tea.  The double shot of espresso sent a pleasant buzz along my nerve endings.  “None that I can think of on such short notice.  They won’t call off the dogs until they’ve had an opportunity to talk to the Mouse and they aren’t going to come out from cover in order to do that.  This is the only compromise they’d be willing to accept.”

I won’t pretend to understand that aspect of things.  But could someone else go in your place?  As far as the Mouse knows, you could be anyone.  You might not even be a woman, right?  So we could…I don’t know, there are some inexpensive local options I could get in contact with.  A few hours and they can put on a good impersonation of your speech patterns well enough to fool someone who’s never actually met you.”

The suggestion was a little too casual to be actually offhand.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered that Devlin had been spending his days looking into ways to protect me or insulted at the idea that thought I needed his protection to begin with. 

All it would take is one technical question to throw everything off,” I said, erring on the side of ‘flattered.’  A single delay or a second of hesitation could spook him and then we’d be back where we started.  Worse, even.”

Devlin leaned back in his chair, pouting slightly.

If he was already upset, I figured I might as well drop all of the bombs on him at the same time.  “Something else you guys should know, too.”

Devlin and Michel perked up slightly.  Mila glanced up momentarily from her sugary abomination.

He’s going to be skittish,” I said, “and he won’t know who to trust.  He’s already established contact with me and he’s expecting a woman.  But he only agreed to a meeting at a museum after hours, and he only did that because he wanted to control any visitors.  Anyone not authorized to be at our little meeting will send him running, so –“

No!” Devlin and Mila exclaimed, at the exact same time.  Their combined volume was enough that a group of college kids to our right jerked in surprise.  Mila gave them a cool look and the undergrads returned to their own laptop.

No,” Devlin repeated, quieter but with much more insistence.  “You are not going to meet him alone.  Out of the question.”

I arched an eyebrow as high as I could manage.  “And you’re going to stop me?”

He won’t,” Mila said.  “I will.  I’m supposed to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you’re going to walk yourself directly into trouble.”

This time, I’d taken the time to consider Mila’s reaction.  She wouldn’t be thrilled about my decision and she was more than capable of stopping me. But she was a ‘point a to b’ thinker and I knew how to appeal to that ruthless practicality.

Look at it this way,” I said.  “If the Mouse goes into hiding, the Community goes to war.  That takes away possible assets we could use later.  If the Mouse gets captured or subverted the Magi, the Community still goes to war and then we’ve got additional resources being devoted to neutralizing anything I can do to help.  This is the best move and you know it’s the best move.”

Mila pursed her lips together and thought about the problem.  I could almost hear the lines of inquiry opening and closing in her mind.  We didn’t know what the Mouse looked like, so she couldn’t just grab him off of the street.  There was no guarantee that he wasn’t keeping an eye on the museum, on the off chance that someone else might be monitoring the building.  And I’d laid out an irrefutable argument: without the Mouse, we lost the Community as potential aid.  With Caelum rampaging through the digital countryside, we couldn’t afford to lose allies. 

You’re going to be armed,” she said finally.  “Not just the taser, either.”

I can’t carry a gun into the building,” I said.  I left out my own reluctance to carry a firearm.  She wouldn’t have cared about that.

Didn’t say anything about a gun.  You’re as likely to hurt yourself as anybody else.  I’ll figure something out.”

And you’ll be on comms,” Devlin added.  “We’ll be nearby and we’ll work out some code word.  The second you say that, we’re coming in and getting you out, no questions asked.”

Fine, fine,” I said, feigning exasperation. 

In reality, their concern was actually heartwarming in a weird way.  Pointless, but heartwarming.  I’d been working with Mila long enough that I was fairly confident in my ability to handle one hacker, but I didn’t want to raise a fuss about the matter.  It was easier to let Mila dictate the terms of my protection and just circumvent them later, than it was to argue the point to begin with.

I still don’t like this,” Mila said.  “Something feels…wrong.  Like we’re missing something obvious.”

I don’t like it either,” I said.  I finished my tea and placed both of my palms flat on the table in front of me.  “But unless you’ve got another idea, I don’t see any other way for us to play this out.”

Mila stared into her drink, frowning slightly.  When she looked up, her expression was set in a grim line.  Her silence was answer enough.

Chapter 56

Between putting together a new system, transferring the individual files I needed to work on, and uploading various bits of information from the stolen hard drives as necessary, it came as a surprise that I finished my work with a full thirty-six hours left on the clock. When I saw the solution, I couldn’t believe that it had taken me so long to spot what should have been obvious from the first hour.

Virginia helped as much as she could, which wasn’t very much. For a woman of her age, my grandmother was surprisingly capable of grasping technical problems. What she didn’t already know, she was able to quickly conceptualize and grasp. My work, however, dealt largely with cryptographic protocols and network security standards in a strictly illegal fashion. As far as I knew, she might have been able to understand the general philosophy of my work as a hacker, given the opportunity. I just had no intention of giving her that chance.

So, I kept her on the periphery of my work. On occasion, she caught me browsing through spreadsheets and public memos, but I took great care to ensure that she was never around while I read through private emails and balance sheets. When I needed to utilize one of the more legally dubious programs on my laptop, I made sure that she wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity, just to rule out the possibility that she might stumble onto information I didn’t want her to see. That ended up leading to a series of incredibly late nights, as I attempted to wait out the old woman and her ability to stay up for what felt like forever, and days spent sleeping in fits and bursts. It wasn’t ideal but, as long as I was using her mansion as a base of operations, it was a price I was willing to pay.

CJ was around more often than he wasn’t, but we didn’t talk much. It was easy to avoid conversation with him, probably because he was actively attempting to avoid conversation with me. Since the events at the Sovereign, when I’d accidentally overheard my grandmother suggesting an…illicit encounter with a man who was easily a third her age, there had been an impassable gulf of awkwardness between the two of us. He provided assistance when I asked or when my grandmother encouraged him to lend a hand. Other than that, we spent the days mumbling apologies at each other and retreating to our respective sides of the mansion.

One day, while my slapdash system was calculating the results of a particularly tricky algorithm, I found myself wondering about CJ’s background and intentions. Virginia was a wealthy woman, even with the bulk of her fortune tied up in company shares and trust funds. If someone wanted to get close to a woman of her age, in hopes of acquiring some sort of financial recompense for time spent, it wouldn’t be the most ridiculous turn of events. Devlin actually knew men and women who pulled off similar cons, although he maintained that those criminals were acquaintances rather than friends.

I resolved to ask Devlin to look into CJ’s background, just in case. As much as the idea of my grandmother being…intimate with anyone turned my stomach, the very concept of her being taken advantage of was infuriating. If anyone was going to lie to my grandmother, it was going to be me; even then, it would only be for my own good, not to toy with her emotions.

Then, I’d remembered the promise I’d made about dinner on Saturday, and a wave of guilt had drowned out my self-righteousness.

Michel split his time between exercising with Mila and helping to reinforce our mutual cover story. He was more at ease when furthering the deception of our marriage than I would have expected. Of course, he didn’t have to do that much to keep the lie alive. We spent nights in the same room, but my devastated sleep schedule meant that he was able to use the bed more often than not. The two of us went out to lunch, ostensibly for some alone time. In reality, we used the meal as an opportunity to exchange personal information, in case Virginia cornered one of us with a question before I finished up my work in Atlanta and we could move on.

Even though they were more business than lunch, I found myself enjoying the time I spent away from the computer with Michel. He never brought up his burgeoning relationship with Mila again; instead, we talked about our respective childhoods. I’d thought that the expectations placed on me as a member of the prestigious Ford family had been onerous until Michel casually detailed the ways in which his father had emotionally abused him for his sexuality. Devlin had already told me about that aspect of Michel’s personal life, as if I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for myself eventually, but there was a certain weight to the story when delivered by the man himself. None of what he told me made its way into the official cover identity we created for him, but it still gave me an insight into him that I might not have had otherwise.

Devlin worked things on his own end. I’d asked him once about his contacts and he’d responded in the most vague terms imaginable. After that, I allowed him to work without oversight. As I was still keeping details about the Community to myself, despite all of us actively working to satisfy their arbitrary condition, I didn’t really feel like I had a leg to stand on if he wanted to keep some names to himself.

A part of me felt like he was actively excluding me, though. Academically, I knew that was ridiculous. We’d worked together for years and, for the most part, we worked our own channels without complaint. He didn’t have the knowledge base to really understand what I did and I conspicuously went out of my way to avoid knowing anything about the sort of people who congregated in the backrooms and alleys where Devlin struck his deals. He was someone I trusted, to a point; the people he worked with, however? I took them on a case by case basis.

Mila…I didn’t see Mila much. She split her time between Devlin and Michel, as necessary. That made perfect sense. Devlin was making contacts in the Atlanta underworld. As a matter of course, he was closer to danger on a daily basis than I was. And Mila had a strange relationship with Michel, the depths of which I had no interest in plumbing while other things were on my mind. Conversely, I was safe within my grandmother’s mansion most days and nights. No one except for Virginia and CJ knew that I’d stayed in town after the fundraiser. The odds of someone launching an attack that would require Mila’s intervention were slim to none. All things considered, I was as safe as I’d been since Devlin had retrieved me at the start of the London affair.

But I still hadn’t gotten around to apologizing to her. As more time passed, it grew harder and harder to bring it up at all. Mila didn’t seem to have any interest in discussing the argument or even the job we’d pulled at the Sovereign, so there wasn’t an opening I could use to bring up the topic. I didn’t feel that she was ignoring or avoiding me…but, at the same time, I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell. Mila wasn’t acting any differently than she normally did. She wasn’t doing anything abnormal at all, as far as I could tell. I just felt weird about our working relationship, and I couldn’t think of any way to remedy that situation.

Besides the obvious, of course, but her general demeanor made it impossible for me to address the situation without crippling levels of awkwardness. I chose to work, instead.

The final clue – in a way, the very first clue – dropped into place during one of my lunchtime conversations with Michel. We’d chosen a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine, not far at all from the Sovereign. The location had been Devlin’s suggestion and I’d agreed with the selection. I’d eaten at that spot more than once and it wouldn’t hurt me to keep an eye on the Sovereign. Devlin and I had attacked the Sovereign’s security for our own reasons, but it would have been foolish to ignore the fact that someone had hired a cat burglar to further their own ends….unless Barrett had been working independently, which raised an entire other set of questions.

Can I ask you a question?” Michel asked, when he finished off a mouthful of a shrimp and grits.

That’s kind of the whole point of these lunches,” I said.

He shoveled another fork laden with food into his mouth and chased it with some sweet tea before responding. “This is where you grew up, no?”

Yes and no. I spent a lot of my childhood here, because my parents were away on business a lot of the time. They actually lived in San Francisco at the time.”

Where you were before…all of this started?” Michel waved his fork in the air, indicating our current position.

They…weren’t actually there,” I said. “Or aren’t actually there. I guess. Look, it’d be more accurate to say that they have a house in the city, but they’re denizens of the world. If you pressed me, I’m not sure I could tell you where they are at any given point. At least, not without spending some time tracing their movements.”

He nodded and drank some more sweet tea.

I gave him a few moments to continue. When he didn’t, I speared some quail with my fork, chewed thoughtfully on it, and cleared my throat to prompt him. “That wasn’t your question, though, was it?”

Uh…no,” Michel said. “But now I am concerned that it may come off as rude.”

If you don’t ask it,” I said, “then I’m going to be wondering about it forever. What’s on your mind?”

The food here…it is unique,” Michel said, haltingly. “And if you grew up…I mean, if you spent much of your time here, I am wondering why you cannot, uh…”

Why I can’t cook?” I finished for him. He nodded and I knew that his cheeks would be bright red, if that were a possibility. “It’s really not that complicated. Honestly, I don’t even think that much about it.”

Having said that, I still felt a little hesitation collect in my throat, keeping me from going any further. Since meeting Devlin, I’d spent an inordinate amount of time working on my culinary skills. Since joining back up with him, those same feelings had begun to resurface. Secretly, when I was sure that no one was going to walk in on me, I’d been practicing again. The results had been less than encouraging.

What is the reason? I mean to say…is it possible that you might be cooking dinner for me, according to our false identities?”

I snorted through my nose. “Hardly. Like I said, it isn’t anything special. I have a tendency to start over-thinking recipes. Devlin’s tried to work with me on it before, but no luck. By the time I realize that I’m creating problems where none existed, I’ve burned one thing or overcooked something else. It’s easier to just let him handle it.”

The fact that it had taken me months to get used to the reversal in gender roles didn’t find its way into the conversation. For better or worse, I’d grown up under the watchful eye of none other than Virginia Ford, a scion of the old guard. Her personal brand of feminism allowed for strong women to take leadership roles, but it did not have any room for a woman who couldn’t provide food for her husband. It was an odd juxtaposition, to be sure, but it was one she made work. Me…not so much.

Devlin didn’t care who cooked, so long as food was prepared. He was better in the kitchen than me, so it made perfect sense for him to take the lead. When he’d finally discovered my failings in that arena, he hadn’t even taunted me about it…or, perhaps more accurately, he hadn’t taunted me anymore than he taunted me about everything. Over time, I’d gotten used to our roles, strange as they were.

Michel couldn’t possibly have understood all of that from the thin answer I’d given him. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure how I would have explained all of the interpersonal connections, the tug-of-war I’d felt settling into a position wherein I allowed someone to take care of my food needs, without spending another week or two analyzing every individual interaction between Devlin and me. Thankfully, he didn’t pry into the matter. He simply nodded, ate another bite of food, and began searching for another topic to discuss.

I sensed an opening and decided to bring up the topic we’d been carefully avoiding. “You know,” I said, “Mila might be similar. I mean, with regards to making food. She mostly only eats sweets, if you give her half an opportunity, but you know what I mean.”

Michel froze up, for just an instant. He relaxed an eye blink later, but he didn’t completely relax. “I will…think about that,” he said carefully. “Maybe when we are finished here, I will find the time to cook something for her. Just to see how she likes it, of course.”

Of course.”

He sighed and dropped his fork onto the plate. “I am not normally like this,” he said. “I mean…I have known difficult women before.”

If you knew anyone like Mila,” I said, “then you’ve had a more interesting life than I thought.”

Michel responded with a weak smile. “You know what I mean. She is so difficult and I do not know, from one day to another, if she only sees me as a coworker or as something more. Sometimes, I think that there is no difference for her between the job and the rest of her life.”

I took a second to parse his tortured grammar. “You met her after Devlin and I did. She’s…focused, definitely. I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing she puts on as a type of armor or if it’s just her personality. I’ve seen her let down her guard a few times; so have you, for that matter.”

With Aiden,” Michel said. I was surprised at the level of heat in his words. “But that is an extreme situation. I once knew a man who told me that the best way to get to know someone is to watch how they react the first time you meet them. That is who they are, at their basic level. If that is true, then Mila is…” He trailed off and shrugged.

I listened to what he said with one fragment of my mind, while the rest of it caught onto his phrasing. When they’d first met…there was something to that. I didn’t know exactly what, but a tantalizing fragment of an idea floated just out of reach.

There had been data hidden in the emails and that data had translated to an image of a newspaper on the same day that I’d met Devlin. We’d robbed a fundraiser that night and we’d accomplished the theft with such skill that the charity had refused to divulge exactly what they’d lost. It was a crime that hadn’t technically happened, according to the police. As such, it stood to reason that no one – not the Mouse, not Caelum, not the entire Community – would have been able to figure out my involvement. The theft had been wildly out of my character at the time and the use of technical controls was a new addition for Devin’s work, as well.

But the Mouse would have recognized the signature. Had, in fact, recognized the signature, if the newspaper article buried in code was indicative of anything. Why would he have gone looking for it? How would he even have known to look for evidence of a crime that very few people even knew about to begin with?

It’s where we met,” I said to myself.

What?”

I blinked, refocused on Michel and my present surroundings. “The benefit job. It wasn’t just where Devlin and I met. That was the same day that the Mouse and I started to work more closely with each other. He doesn’t know about the job; he must only know about the fact that it’s an important date for the two of us. It was a message.”

Michel gave me a nonplussed look, but I put his expression out of my mind. I reached under the table for my laptop. I’d been carrying it with me more often lately, on the off-chance that inspiration struck when I was away from the mansion.

Call Devlin for me,” I said as my laptop booted up. Michel hurried to comply.

While he waited on the line, I went back to the original hidden file – the newspaper, shoe date was really the only relevant bit of information – and stared at it for several long seconds. How had I not noticed this first? I was losing my touch.

Here,” Michel said I looked up and he handed me his phone.

I didn’t give Devlin an opportunity to say anything. “You remember our first job, right? We were in Atlanta, but I don’t remember exactly what building we were in.”

It took him a moment to find the name. “The Mason…Mason Murer, I think? One of those contemporary museums. Why?”

I opened my email programs and started to write out a quick message.

Mouse,

Mason Murer Gallery? When can we meet?

-Irene

He hid that message for me to find,” I said to Devlin. “The picture, the old server…it’s a puzzle that only I could solve. He wants someone to find him, but he doesn’t want to risk drawing Caelum’s attention. Or the Magi’s, for that matter, but I’m not sure how much he actually knows about them.”

Devlin’s line of the call was silent for a bit. “So what you’re saying is…”

I started to answer, but stopped when a reply message appeared in my inbox.

Irene,

Saturday. 6:30. Come alone.

The Mouse didn’t bother signing the email. He didn’t really need to. I closed my laptop slowly and looked across the table at Michel. His eyes were a little wide, his breath a little quicker than necessary, but he seemed totally present and aware. It was a shame he wouldn’t play a larger part in the next stage of events.

It means that I’ve got a meeting to arrange,” I said to Devlin.